What did your great-grandparents eat? Perhaps bumpy, multicolored squash that they picked directly from the vine (and that don’t resemble anything you’ve ever seen at the grocery store). Maybe varieties of corn and maize that were harder and less sugary than the super-sweet corn widely available today. Or fresh bulbous greens that can only be found in specialty food stores.

Whether it's a culinary quest or a return to your roots that piqued your interest in an agricultural time hop, know that starting a heritage garden — a plot that honors history with food and florals — is one way of experiencing a bit of the everyday life of our ancestors.

What Is a Heritage Garden?

English Country Cottage with beautiful flowers garden in the sunshine in Cotswolds, England, UK
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The term “heritage garden” generally describes modern gardens that emulate the agricultural history of a particular time, place, or culture. Many regional gardening organizations use heritage garden programs as a way to reestablish native plant species, though heritage gardens don’t have to follow that guideline exclusively. Some heritage gardens honor the life or achievements of a particular person; the Chicago Botanical Garden’s heritage garden honors Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who created binomial nomenclature, the naming system used to identify plant and animal species.

Whatever fuels your interest in pursuing a historically inspired green space, know that most heritage gardens share two characteristics: using species commonly present during a particular time period, and relying on old-world planting and maintenance methods.

Get Inspired and Get Going

Herbs and vegetables home garden.
Credit: fotolinchen/ iStock

Creating a garden space that honors your cultural or regional heritage gives you the chance to go back and time and reconnect with your roots. But how do you get started if you didn’t actually live during that time period? Many cultures, such as Native Americans, used tried and true farming practices that have been well-recorded and continued to this day — including three sisters gardens, which grow corns, beans, and squash together. For some communities, such as Asian American gardeners, creating kitchen gardens that reflect traditional herbs and foods is one way of staying tied to their cultural background.

Speaking with family members about your own ancestors' farming and gardening methods can give insight to plant species and gardening methods for your own heritage garden. But if you aren’t able to glean a ton of information, be on the lookout for historical agricultural references that can clue you into how your ancestors planted, harvested, and ate.

Local gardening organizations or university agricultural extension offices can help you determine what will and won’t work based on your region’s climate. Plus, the help of master gardeners or ag specialists can help you create a plan to combat common gardening issues while using sustainable practices that were also likely used in the past.

One last unexpected resource? Your favorite area farmer. Consider reaching out to local farmers who grow specialty crops that you enjoy — perhaps one you frequent at a farmers' market. Their experience could help you hone in your garden vision before you've even tilled the soil.

Heritage and Heirloom Plants 101

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When it comes to selecting unique plant varieties, you'll often hear about “heritage” or “heirloom” plants. These designations generally refer to species that have been around for more than 50 years; many were first introduced before World War II. In most cases, heirloom produce isn’t commonly found in grocery stores because the varieties aren’t planted on large-scale farms. Heirloom seeds are not genetically modified, and these seeds can be saved each year (i.e. you'd collect the seeds from the fruit and vegetables that you grew) to help save money on future garden costs and to continue the line of heritage crops.

Heritage gardens rely heavily on heirloom plants, though if your envisioned plot features hybrid or modern varieties, that’s OK, too. And don’t forget that seed and garden companies may be one of your best allies in creating your first heritage garden. Some seed producers offer unique and hard-to-find varieties, and can speak to the plant’s historical and cultural backstory.

Creating a Heritage Garden Plan

Small green sprouts in small circular containers
Credit: Markus Spiske/ Unsplash

Funneling inspiration and plant species into an actual plan is the most fun part of gardening. Naturally, you’ll want to sketch out your garden’s location and setup, but your plan should consist of more than just visual aesthetics. You’ll want to nail down three main areas for success: what to plant (and when), how to plant it, and how to maintain your plot. How were traditional gardens irrigated, or how were heirloom squash once trellised? Exploring these questions can help you stick with environmentally friendly and sustainable gardening methods that are true to history while also helping you decide how much work you want to put into your garden.

Be sure to incorporate regional weather into your plan — you may need to modify your plans based on the length of your growing season or the amount of space you have. And when it comes to any form of gardening, don’t be afraid to start small. Scaling down your first attempt allows you to gain some experience and confidence in your burgeoning green-thumb before spending too much money or dedicating too much time right off — you want your interest to bloom and grow along with your harvest.

Regardless of how your first agricultural homage goes, make definite plans to try again the following season. While modern gardeners can brush off produce losses with a trip to the grocery store, our forebears didn’t have the same option. You can honor their hard work and successes with your own persistence.