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Cultivating Canadian Gardens: A History of Gardening in Canada


Planting the Seeds

  • Native Agriculture and Plant Use
  • Canadian Flora
  • Pioneer Gardening
  • 19th Century Seed Catalogues

    Cultivating the Garden
    The Cultivators
    Reaping the Harvest
    Photos by Beth Powning
    Other Gardening Sites

  • Planting the Seeds

    The earliest records relating to gardening in this country come from the 17th century, in particular from the reports of the Jesuit missionaries in New France who wrote about the agricultural practices of aboriginal North Americans and who collected the new plants they discovered growing there and shipped them back to France. At about the same time, Champlain's settlers were establishing the small gardens essential to their survival. Before the end of the century, the northern forts established by the Hudson's Bay Company were growing cabbages and turnips in the Arctic.

    Native Agriculture and Plant Use

    When Europeans first began to settle in what is now Canada, many indigenous peoples were living by hunting and fishing alone, but others were practising agriculture, either directly or by tending and harvesting wild crops.

    The Hurons were particularly adept farmers. By the time the Europeans arrived, they were working large acreages, devoted for the most part to their major crops, the "three sisters"  -  maize (corn, Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and squash (Cucurbita pepo), which are believed to have originated in Mesoamerica. The three were planted together in small hills. As the corn grew straight and tall, it provided a stake around which the bean plant climbed, with the squash spreading over the earth and keeping down weeds. The healthiest seeds were saved for the next year's planting, and extra seeds were put aside for bad years.

    Wild herbs and other plant life were used as medicines and for food, in much the same way as they were throughout the rest of the world at that time. Fruits, nuts and berries were especially important, and were gathered and eaten, or dried for future use.

    When the Europeans arrived, the aboriginal gardeners passed on their knowledge of indigenous plants, including how to render sweet sap from the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) into syrup and sugar. They, in turn, adopted many of the new seeds and fruit trees brought by the immigrants.

    Image of flower
    The Jesuit missionaries in New France recorded their experiences in detailed annual volumes, The Jesuit Relations, for almost two centuries, beginning in the early decades of the 17th century. From them we gain a picture of the native peoples, the foods they grew, and their methods of growing and harvesting it.
    "They have in equal abundance corn, beans and squash." [translation]
      Relations des Jésuites.
      Paris: Sebastien Cramoizy, 1642. J. Lalement, Part II, p. 54.
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    The Hurons were the pre-eminent farmers of the aboriginal nations. As well as corn, beans and squash, they cultivated sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus) for oil, and tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) used mostly for ceremonial purposes.
    "The rolling hills of the Huron country supported a prosperous horticultural economy, and the Huron were accustomed to trade their surplus produce with the Algonkian hunters of the north."
    The Huron: Farmers of the North
    Trigger, Bruce.
    The Huron: Farmers of the North.
    Fort Worth, Texas; Toronto, Montreal: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1990, p. 1.
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    The Huron used a slash-and-burn method of agriculture which rapidly depleted the soil, requiring them to move every few years.

      Parker, Arthur Caswell. (ed. Fenton, William N.)
      Parker on the Iroquois: Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants, The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet, The Constitution of the Five Nations.
      Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1968.
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    The Ojibwa gathered wild rice in the fall, beating the kernels into their canoes as they glided through the water. They also encouraged the propagation of the grain by establishing new stands, weeding them, and bundling the stalks to retain the grain and discourage pests.

    Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects.
    Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects.
    ed. Kerry Abel and Jean Friesen.
    Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1991.