Needham History Center & Museum

The Colonial Housewife’s Dooryard Garden

Our friends at the Golden Ball Tavern Museum in Weston keep an herb garden in the rear dooryard.
Our friends at the Golden Ball Tavern Museum in Weston keep an herb garden in the rear dooryard.


Those small weeds with lush green leaves that emerge in our gardens just after the frosts recede are our reassurance – our guardians – against the ancient and visceral fear that the warm sun might not return.


It’s the first miracle of Spring – those little green things that start popping up in your garden, those small weeds with lush green leaves that emerge just after the frosts recede.  They are our reassurance – our guardians – against the ancient and visceral fear that the warm sun might not return. As scientific creatures, we know that the seasons are cyclical and inevitable, and that the bitter darkness of winter will be beaten back by the sweet light of Spring. But admit it – there are days in February when you still have your doubts.

From ancient times, pretty much until the advent of refrigeration, these little plants had another important purpose – welcome nutrition.  Winter food supplies had to be preserved by drying or salting. There were some durable root vegetables, apples, and cabbages, but fresh greens were scarce between October and March. This was especially a problem for pregnant women, who were unable to get many of the vitamins and minerals that we now know are necessary for a healthy pregnancy.

My own garden right now has an abundant growth of watercress. Soon to follow will be lamb’s quarters (also known as pigweed), purslane, orach (wild spinach), wild onions, dandelion, sorrel, and the various mustards. All of these are nutritious and (mostly) tasty. Most of us pull out these plants and discard them as weeds, wasting a rich pantry of green groceries (and a costly one, if you have seen the market price of purslane and French sorrel!)

A fortunate characteristic of these plants is that they tend to grow in disturbed soil – soft soil that has been tilled for crops and gardens, typical of the spaces around the house.  In colonial times, houses kept gardens in the dooryard in back of the house. In these gardens housewives grew a variety of herbs and garden crops – squashes, cabbages, leafy things – separate from the cornfields and pastures that yielded the mainstay of their food.

The herbs in the garden had a wide range of uses. We are most familiar with their use for flavoring food, and the housewife used them for this purpose whenever she could (believe me – colonial food was boring!)  Many also had utility as dyes and (because a woman’s work is never done) medicinals.  In the 1700s and early 1800s, farms and villages were spread over the landscape, and doctors were few and far between.  Housewives were responsible for doctoring their families and livestock, and for preparing the teas, salves, and ointments needed for healing.  A housewife’s dooryard herb garden provided the materials she used for treating illness, as well as for flavoring and fragrance. 

Anise-Hyssop (Agastache anethiodora) – Grown to attract honeybees to the bee skip.  The leaves were made into a tea to relieve flu symptoms.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – Tea made from the flowers was used to sooth stomach ailments (indigestion, colic, diarrhea) or as an analgesic to relieve headaches, fever, or arthritis.

Flax (Linum usitatissimum) –  The ripe seeds were pressed for linseed oil to treat wood and leather, and as a skin liniment. The fibers in the long stems were the source of linen for cloth. The oil could be used as a purgative if ingested. 

Lavender (Lavandula officinalis) – Used for its fragrance in freshening clothing and bedding, and the air in the house; it was especially good at combating the smell of mildew.  Lavender water was used to treat burns.  The fragrance was also considered soothing, and used to induce sleep. In the 19th century, lavender was valued as an anti-aphrodisiac (you read that right).

Lovage (Levisticum officinale) – The leaves and seeds were used in cooking, and taste like celery.  It was used as a diuretic, and has mild antiseptic properties that were used for treating wounds or to relieve urinary tract infections.

Parsley (Petroselium crispum) – The leaves are very high in chlorophyll and Vitamin C, and were chewed to freshen breath.  Parsley tea was used to sooth indigestion and relieve flatulence.  It was used in the hair as a cure for baldness.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) – The leaves were used as a flavoring herb, especially in rich foods, as an aid to digestion.  Sage tea was used as a mild antiseptic mouthwash and for treating sore throats.

Spearmint (Mentha spicata) – Mint was used in both sweet and savory cooking, for its flavor and digestive properties.  Mint leaves were rubbed on tables or spread on the floor to discourage pests and freshen the air in the home.  A tea made from mint leaves settled the stomach and was used as a cure for nausea.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – Thyme’s flavor goes well with many foods, and was used widely in cooking.  In housekeeping, it was used as a disinfectant and insect repellant.  Thyme tea was used to relieve headaches and stomachaches, and especially hangovers.  It was given before bed to prevent nightmares.

Winter Savory (Satureia montana) – Both winter and summer savory were use as diuretics and antiseptics.  Fresh leaves were rubbed on bee stings to reduce the pain and swelling. Savory was used in cooking, especially to mask foods with unpleasant odors, such as cabbage.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – The flowers were used for a dye.  A tea made from the dried leaves was a mild analgesic, and used to relieve fevers, flu symptoms, and illnesses of the digestive tract.  A poultice made from the fresh leaves was used to stop bleeding.

Most of us don’t make our own medicinals any more, but we still use lavender for relaxation, and my grandmother swore by chamomile tea with honey for sore throats. The use of these plants was based on many millennia of trial and observation.  It is not unusual to find that modern scientific analysis has shown that many of them do have effective anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, or analgesic properties – these folks were not foolish.

So, as we look forward to the sun-ripened tomatoes in our garden and the colorful perennials around the porch, take a moment to check out the little green leaves that grow up first and herald the welcome Spring that is just around the Corner.

A dooryard herb garden at the Weston (CT) Historical Society.
A dooryard herb garden at the Weston (CT) Historical Society.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum