January 19, 2012

The roots of American gardening

Most Americans list among their ancestors at least one line of immigrant farmers. For me, that’s true on both sides of the family. So reading Marcia Carmichael’s book “Putting Down Roots” is a way to connect with the lives of great-grandparents and the generations before them.


I'm joining Holley at Roses and Other Gardening Joys for her new book review meme. Even though my parents were the first family members to live in Wisconsin, previous generations mainly settled in the Midwest, so their experiences were likely very similar to those described in the book.


Marcia is the historical gardener at Old World Wisconsin—the Wisconsin Historical Society’s largest (576 acres) living-history museum near Eagle, Wis. My parents work at Old World, and they bought me a copy of the book.


One fun aspect of Marcia’s book is the way she organizes each section by country of origin. For example, the section about German immigrants starts with information about the typical German settler garden, and closes with a companion chapter featuring German recipes.

Sprinkled throughout are beautiful full-color photos of Old World’s gardens,


sidebar stories about early settler gardening tools,


techniques for root cellar storage,


companion planting suggestions, and other windows into the world of our settler forebears.



This is a great resource for any gardener, but especially for those interested in heirloom and organic gardening and the history of early American farming and gardening practices. Oh, and of course, cooks and bakers will enjoy this book, too. Here’s just one example of the numerous unique recipes:

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Turnip and Potato Whip

Potatoes and turnips appeared frequently in the garden and on the table. They join other flavors in this simple and popular recipe.

3 cups peeled and cubed turnips
3 cups peeled and cubed potatoes
2 tablespoons chopped onion
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper, to taste
hot milk or cream

Cook turnips, potatoes, and onion in salted water until tender. Drain and dry. Mash quickly together with butter and seasoning, add hot milk, and cream until fluffy.

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(Please visit Holley at Roses and Other Gardening Joys for more book reviews and recommendations.)

37 comments:

  1. A book I would not even have considered since the small veg plots were all my ancestors had here in the US. I love learning about my heritage in gardens...will have to check it out for sure now that I am doing my own veg gardening organic style..thx for the recommendation..

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    1. It's a great reference book for those of us in northern climates, Donna. And it's fun to read about how earlier generations cultivated healthy crops without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.

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  2. This book sounds as if it could teach us many lessons as well as show us how it was all done at that time. I like taking this kind of information and incorporating the best of it in my gardening routine and design. Great review!

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    1. It's one of those books that's handy to have within reach to check back for gardening ideas and recipes. The early settlers had hard lives, but they also had a lot of tricks that can be helpful in our gardens today.

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  3. This book looks quite interesting! Thanks so much for joining me! This is not a book I would have probably picked on my own, but you have me intrigued. I can remember my great-grandparents' root cellar, something I've not seen in many years. As I try to eat more vegetables, and grow them, too, I think this book could give me a lot of good instruction and advice. Love the recipe, too! I hadn't thought of adding turnips to potatoes, but now I know what to do with those extra turnips we have growing! Thanks again.

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    1. Thanks for hosting, Holley! I know--re: the turnips and potatoes! Now I know what to do with turnips when I get them from my CSA. Some of the other recipes surprised me, too. Some are complicated, but others like this one are pretty simple.

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  4. This is a book I'd love to read. I just posted about a relatively local farm that was started by a German immigrant family in the 1870s, which is now smack in the middle of huge city. I always love looking back at the lives of those who toiled the soil before us. The book looks beautiful and sounds really interesting too, thanks for pointing it out!

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    1. I will check out your post! That story sounds like my great-grandparents' story. They had a vegetable farm and orchard in what is now the middle of Lansing, Mich. This book really brings that period in American history to life for the reader.

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  5. Sounds very interesting, though we have no family from Wisconsin (we're a Texas bunch!). However, my husband's ancestors were German immigrants with land, and I bet some of that info applies here, also.

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    1. I'm sure some of the techniques were different because of the climate, but once the warm gardening weather hits we all face similar challenges and joys. The book includes info regarding settlers from a variety of backgrounds. It's fascinating to learn about the different cultures, too.

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  6. Hi, I found you through Holley's meme. The photos of old world gardens look charming. I also have some turnips that I forgot to roast so I might be giving the turnip and potato whip recipe a try.

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    1. Thanks for checking in! Please do tell me how the whip turns out. I've generally used Turnips for stew in the past, but the whip sounds so much tastier!

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  7. What an interesting look book! I loved the phot of the "barn baskets"...they look so practical. And thank you for the turnip and potato whip recipe. I have turnips from the farmers' market right now in my frig and I plan to try that recipe!

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    1. Hi Dorothy: I agree--the turnip and potato whip has me curious. The illustrations in the book are fascinating, too.

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  8. I may have to try the turnip recipe because I never had a liking for them. But combined with potatoes... it just might be the ticket to tasty.

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    1. I've mainly used Turnips in stew, but I'm imagining that mixed with Potatoes and Onions they'd add a union flavor and texture. Next time I get Turnips I'll try it.

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  9. How lovely to collect together the different gardening philosophies that went to make the American gardener. Sounds like a great book to own.

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    1. I'm always fascinated by communities of people of different ethnic origins who settle together and learn from each other. It must have been so challenging back in the days before electricity, plumbing, and modern machines.

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  10. Very interesting book review. I love turnips and will have to try the recipe.

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    1. I never know what to do with Turnips, so this will be a fun recipe to try.

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  11. What a cool idea for a book! Nothern VA has an transient population and most people aren't from here. They just live here until the gov't or their agency moves them elsewhere so I'm not sure if we have have regional gardening influences. Most people plant whatever will give them enough curb appeal to help their house sell. It would be fascinating, though, to live in an area long enough to be able to see the influences of the people who helped settle the area.

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    1. Seems like we're all pretty homogeneous now, but looking back at these settlers is kind of fun, and I've learned a few pointers on organic gardening from the book. Most of us here don't realize where the influences came from either. But it's interesting to find out. :)

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  12. Sounds like such an interesting book! I read this yesterday, but got interrupted before I could reply.

    My family has deep roots in this area--my parents still live on the farmstead first purchased and farmed by my great-grandfather. My husband and I live on a farm that has also been in his family for several generations. So I love reading about the history of the early settlers in our area, and have read several locally written books, especially about my German ancestors. But nothing I've read really contains any information about their gardens; how neat that Marcia has chosen to focus on this, since I would think that the garden was a valuable part of their existence.

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    1. Rose: How fascinating! I suppose some of the techniques and recipes that you use were probably handed down--that's pretty special. Yeah, I imagine they spent quite a bit of time tending their gardens, since they relied on them for food. And they didn't have modern equipment or conveniences.

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  13. Thank you for the review. Since I am foreign, this book sounds particularly interesting. I will see if I can get hold of it, thanks again!

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    1. Masha: Several settler groups are included, which makes it even more interesting imagining the rich cultures of the people who came here. The book is available on Amazon and gets five stars: http://amzn.to/wRUq4P. Enjoy!

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  14. Such a book would be very useful for home gardeners who'd like to know their roots. Historical gardening - I have never thought of this before. I wish there's one about the place where I garden too.

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    1. I wonder if there is one. I would be fascinated by the history of gardening in Malaysia, too! Let me know if you find such a book!

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  15. Wow - what a stunning book, and a terrific idea! A friend gave me a similarly-themed book, called "The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans" by Patricia Klindienst. Very interesting book, although no pictures!

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation--sounds fascinating! I love the title!

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  16. I see now why you were interested in the Joy Larkcom books that I wrote about... I think that social and family history is so much more interesting than political history. I'd far rather read about what the early US settlers grew and cooked and ate than how they elected theit first President! :)

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    1. Me, too, Mark! The family is the true fabric of society. The interesting thing is that we all have so much more in common with each other than we realize--no matter where we live. And we can learn from each other if we're open to the lessons.

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  17. Your scanned images gave us a real taster (an the recipe sounds appetising too) What strikes me is what the ancestors already knew - lots of square foot gardening going on there for example.

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    1. Yes, very true! It's fun to imagine living in those times--although I realize it was tons of back-breaking hard work!

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  18. I enjoyed your review. That looks like a great book! My grandparents were Germans from Russia. I wish we had photos of the huge garden they had. Before they got that, though, they were migrant farm workers. They mostly worked beet fields in western Nebraska.

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    1. Wow, what a great history you have! It is wonderful to have photos. My family has a few, but it would be nice to have more. Working beet fields sounds exhausting!

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  19. Think I Will skip that recipe but this is very interesting. Someone asked me What is it like to have no roots? (had parents who moved all over the place) I have been cultivating them ever since. In the context of the US being melting pot from all over, totally rivetting read.

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