Putting Down Roots – Gardening Insights from Wisconsin’s Early Settlers (book review)

by Karen Des Jarlais

371-t1Ever wonder why we plant what we plant and who decided it? Putting Down Roots has some answers. British (called Yankees in this book) German, Norwegian, Irish, Danish, Polish, and Finnish are the Europeans which the author reviews.

You can actually see these recreations of the original gardens at Old World Wisconsin-the largest of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s living history museums. It’s in Waukesha County-576 acres in Eagle. These are historically accurate gardens which complement the settings of a dozen homes from the above ethnic backgrounds. These researched gardens, according to the author, are filled with vegetables, flowers herbs and fruits of varying colors, textures, flavors and fragrances.

Each nationality has its particulars expressed in this book. Common to all are the drawings of tools which are charming in their simplicity and practicality. If you are faced with a distance between your water source and your compost for example, the “garden engine” might solve your aching back, shoulder, or hose problems. It’s kind of like a wheel barrow with a pump. It’s in the Yankee section. We can also thank the Yankees for replacing the scythe and grass sickle with the lawn mower which paved the way for acceptance of the labor intensive lawns which we “enjoy” today.

The German section details much of the German industriousness which we witness as we hear news of the stable German economy. I want to look up “black salsify” or scorzonera to see if we can find it today. They pioneered gardening in rows and separated the kitchen garden from the flowers. They also gave us the wheelhoe, a form of cultivator.

Peruse the Polish section and you discover that rosemary and myrtle were important at weddings. Stovewood construction or incorporating whole logs with concrete is also from the Poles.

The Finns gave us an intricate root cellar idea.

You’ll very much enjoy the photos of the restored homes which have been moved to Old World Wisconsin. The orderliness of the gardens and the lush growth make me want to drift back in a time machine to the late 1800’s. The seed catalogs from that time period and the drawings they contain make this book worth a look for those alone. The appendix is a bunch of tables which highlight the plants each ethnic group planted to eat. Also informative is the section on plants for dyeing. It’s well indexed and there’s a great bibliography for each nationality so that you can learn more.

Here’s the biggest bonus—recipes for each group of settlers! I’m anxious to try the Irish “Boreen Brack” which is a kind of bread.

There’s lots to see and learn in this book. Your library has Putting Down Roots.

I hope you’ll dig it out!

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