The farm garden

It’s early April, and the growing season is not far off. For a farmer like Jonathan M. Clark, it’s a little early yet for plowing and sowing, but not too early to make plans and sharpen the tools. For a farmer’s wife, like Mary (Turck) Clark, it’s not too soon to think about the farm garden, its crops and layout.

I don’t know if Mary and Jonathan were regular readers of the popular and affordable farmers’ almanacs of their era; I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. There were many to chose from. Perhaps they had a copy of something like:

The Cultivator […], New Series, Vol. VII, Albany, 1850, title page. Click to open larger image in new window.

A growing family in a new house

Mary and Jonathan celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary on March 15, 1850. They were now parents of four children: Caroline (age 9), Henry (7), Elizabeth (5) and a 3-year-old daughter, “P. A.,” later known as Persie.

In spring, 1850, Mary was expecting once again. The Clark’s fifth child, a daughter, would be born on May 9th. On the 1850 census she was enumerated as Mary. Later, for a while, she would be called Sarah. As an adult she would be known as Theresa or Tresa.

In addition to Mary, Jonathan, and the four Clark children—and the child soon to arrive—the household included Mary’s youngest brother, Benjamin Turck (age 11) and a hired man, a 30 year-old German immigrant named John Buck. With eight people in the home, it’s good that the big, two-story stone house was completed around 1848.

The farm garden

To feed all those hungry mouths, the Clark farm almost certainly included a substantial farm garden. Such a garden would have been near the house and would have included all manner of fruits, vegetables, tubers, legumes, herbs and—possibly—some purely decorative flowers. Mary, as head of all things associated with the home and kitchen, would have been in charge of the garden, too. The older children would have helped with planting, weeding and harvesting, or by minding the youngest children so Mary could focus on the garden and her other household tasks.

By 1850, the Clarks were well established on their farm and in their new, large home. We don’t know what Mary’s farm garden looked like, but perhaps she took inspiration from illustrations and suggestions in the various farmers’ almanacs, such as this page from Vol. VII, No. 1 of the 1850 Cultivator:

The Cultivator […], New Series, Vol. VII, Albany, 1850, p. 27. Click to open larger image in new window.

My guess is that Mary and Jonathan probably didn’t splurge on a large garden vase or sun dial. And the suggested geometrical shrubbery (h) or a columned “Rustic Alcove” seem a bit high-toned for 1850 Mequon. Even so, it’s still worth looking closely at this garden plan.

Of course, the farm in the engraving is laid out differently than the Clark’s farm. In the picture, the farmhouse (A) is approached via a curving drive (c) and shares a kind of courtyard or “parking area” (d) with the barns (e). The Clark farm—as best we know—lacked most of these features. From early days, the Clark farmhouse was on the west side of Cedarburg Road, and the barn and other outbuildings were on the east side.

For me, the most important reason to look at this 1850 magazine illustration is to get a sense of how large an established farm garden could be. As a very rough estimate, this suggested garden (B) covers more than 10 times the area of the farmhouse itself. This is an entirely realistic size for a 19th-century farm garden.1 I would expect Mary Clark’s garden to have been similar in size, even if it differed in its details.

What did Mary grow?

There’s much we don’t know about what—exactly—the Clarks and their Mequon neighbors grew on their farms. It’s likely that we can find out more, once I can access microfilms at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Based on the compiled statistics from Washington (later Ozaukee) County’s federal decennial census for 1850, we do know that certain garden crops were grown in the area. These included peas, beans, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, barley and buckwheat. Other grains, such as corn, wheat and oats, were major farm crops and would have filled the large farm fields.

Not found on the 1850 census reports are garden crops such as berries, tree fruits, herbs, and other typical garden produce. I suspect this is because these crops were not grown as surplus, market produce, but simply for home consumption. We know that some 1850 Wisconsin farmers were growing strawberries, pears and apples and would continue to do so. And Mary may well have kept a beehive or two for honey production.

For more on the Clarks’ farm and garden products, see Harvest Time: 1850, part 1 and Harvest Time: 1850, part 2. For a look at the now-demolished Clark barn, see Harvest Time

Until next time, be well. Stay safe. Wear a mask.


  1. This was not unusual in the 20th-century, either. For example, my wife’s Grandma Florence had a much smaller house and family than Mary (Turck) Clark, on a good-sized Nebraska farm. To support her family of five, she tended a farm garden of about a half-acre in size throughout her adult life. The tubers, vegetables and fruits that she grew there and canned or kept in the root cellar lasted all year, until the next year’s fresh garden crops were ready.

2 thoughts on “The farm garden

  1. While I am not a garden expert, I do enjoy these two books in our JCH Library. They are both based on our awesome Old World Wisconsin historic site.
    Carmichael, Marcia, Putting Down roots, Gardening Insights from Wisconsin Early Settlers, 2011
    Ernst, Kathleen, A Settler’s Year – Pioneer Life Through the Seasons, 2015

    JCH farmer Mr. Fred is making plans for a vegetable garden and herb gardener Carol is planning another fabulous herb garden. They will both involve a couple of our young Historians.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those are great books! and long-time favorites at our house. I just checked, and both are still in print and available from the Wisconsin Historical Society online store, and elsewhere. Highly recommended.

      I’m glad farmer Fred and herb gardener Carol are getting ready for another season at the Clark House. It won’t be long!

      Liked by 1 person

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