What must food growing have been like for the earliest newcomers to Upper Canada? Many families arrived with a sack of seed and little else.This spring when we cleared more ground for planting vegetables, I thought about how much more difficult the task must have been for the earliest settlers. Before planting food, settlers first had to cut down an army of trees and remove obstacles  like roots and boulders. I certainly didn’t have to contend with such challenges. Our garden plot will generate produce to can or freeze, but nothing sufficient to sustain us until the next growing season. Plants are just beginning to yield and August is half over.

(Please enjoy this Wellspring Podcast of Pioneer Food Gardens and Orchards.)

Settlers often wrote to their families abroad to bemoan the Upper Canada climate. How often this new land thwarted their gardening efforts with its three growing months—June, July, and August. James Rapson of Galt  wrote to his family in 1832 decrying the hot dry weather. Not only was the summer brief, but the scorching heat withered his oats, Indian corn and cucumber.

vegetable stand at lower bytown 2
“Près de Ville & Terrace ” showing market area in lower town with Citadel walls in upper background. Commercial buildings of J. Hinds, A.W. Lebel and James A. Quinn and a vegetable stand in foreground. (Library and Archive of Canada)

By comparison, Upper Canada (UC), was much hotter than England. For new settlers, the differences didn’t end there. They found that in UC, September to November  and March through April were similar to English winters. But December to February punished with its severely cold temperatures and the accompanying frost and snow.

Another challenge to UC gardening was the variance in soil type. In 1835, George Coleman of Woodstock gave an account of an area where soil was light and sandy, yet half a mile away the land was rich with mould. At another nearby site, the land consisted of unworkable clay. He advised against cultivating where pines and cedars grow, or where there was swampy ground. The best land, he maintained, was where the oak, walnut, beech and maple trees grew.

In 1833 James Golring, a single labourer from York, grew a one acre garden along Lake Ontario. At about the same time, the Parkers—a family of five in Adelaide Township—thought it sufficient to plant three acres of Indian corn along with potatoes and four and a half acres of wheat. As was commonly done, they wrote to British relatives requesting seeds for crookhorn peas, a field pea grown for feeding livestock. Swedish turnips, also known as rutabaga, were grown to feed livestock while a smaller white variety were grown for human consumption. Edward and Catharine Boxale, also of Adelaide Township, wrote home to request onion seed, carrot seed, and mangel wurzel  seed, a variety of beet used for feeding cattle.

Thomas Talbot’s farm-yard, Port Talbot. September 1842 (Library and Archive of Canada)
Joseph Pickering, 1825-1826 (Library and Archive of Canada)

By 1825, Colonel Talbot of the Talbot Settlement boasted a garden that was, according to Joseph Pickering, “better stocked than most in America, yet like a good common one in England”. Talbot’s garden included cabbages, cucumbers, Swedish turnips and other commonly found vegetables plus a few hills of hops, useful for brewing ale. He also grew a number of fruits: cherries, plums, apricots, nectarines, apples, gooseberries, currants, watermelon, and muskmelon. Fruit plantings of gooseberry, raspberry, strawberry, and currants could be imported from England, but settlers commented that the fruit was seldom as flavourful as when grown in England

Asa Burnham, a resident of Cobourg, UC, was not only a judge but a progressive settler who experimented with cultivating fruits and vegetables. He grew the small white turnip variety during the 1830s and 1840s when turnips were considered a luxury. Despite his concern that hoeing and cultivating may harm the turnips, he turned out a successful crop.

Mr. Powell’s peach orchard, location and date unknown (Library and Archive of Canada)

In the Niagara District, also known as The Garden of Canada, peaches and cherries have been grown since 1793. Most settlers, however, made due with collecting wild fruits such as grapes. Many people who had orchards left the fruit to drop on the ground for their pigs to forage. In 1796, the forward thinking John McIntosh of Dundas County transplanted several wild apple trees. Grafts from one of his trees were distributed to other likeminded enthusiasts. Today, McIntosh Reds are a favourite apple throughout the province.

In the late 1820s, Catherine Parr Traill wrote this about the UC log houses and shanties she encountered. “Around the habitations were orchards, bending down with a rich harvest of apples, plums, and American crab, those beautiful little scarlet apples so often met with as wet preserve among our sweet meats at home.”

As early as 1616, Samuel de Champlain wrote about The Neutrals, a First Nations group. He commented on the grain, tobacco, pumpkins and maize grown at their villages along the northern shores of Lake Erie.

Native peoples often supplied wild fruits to the UC settlers. Mrs. Simcoe, wife of the governor, enjoyed wild cranberries, strawberries, raspberries and cherries supplied by First Nations people. She wrote an account of Colonel Talbot bringing her a cake of dried hurtleberries prepared by natives. She said they tasted like “Irwin’s patent black currant lozenges, but tasted of smoke”. Mrs. Simcoe also wrote about tending watermelon, the “cultivation of which was introduced from the United States”.

Catharine Parr Traill referred to Indian corn as useful and profitable crop, selling for $1/bushel in 1833. First Nations women taught her to plant it  by raising the earth with the edge of a broad hoe and dropping  in three or four kernels. In every third or fourth hole (in every other row), she also planted a pumpkin seed. The large pumpkin leaves shade the young corn shoots, and helps the soil to retain its moisture. The corn was ground for flour and mixed with water and milk to make supporne, a porridge popularized by the Americans.

Although this image of First Nations men gathering rice, October 1921 is outside the original era of this piece, I think it’s beautiful to see. Catherine Parr Traill said that “Rice beds, from a distance, look like “low green islands”. (Library and Archive of Canada)

Affluent settlers hired servants to tend their food gardens, in order that their own attentions could be turned toward reviving horticultural practices they’d known in England. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, higher ranking government officials developed lavish estates outside of York, known today as Toronto. Their gardeners experimented with fruit, vegetables and flowers typical of English gardens.

Although the membership of agricultural and horticultural societies consisted of more rural than urban dwellers, meetings were commonly hosted in the tavern of a nearby town.

agricultural fair brantford
Opening of the 1904 agricultural Fair, Brantford, Ontario (Library and Archive of Canada)

Agricultural societies held exhibitions in most settled areas of Upper Canada. In 1820, government legislation provided the financial  means for these societies to conduct fairs and exhibitions twice yearly at York, Cobourg, and Port Hope. Crops were shown in the autumn in conjunction with horse races and ploughing matches. In the circumstance of county level agricultural societies, the hosting of the annual fair was rotated between prominent villages. Some smaller fairs were sponsored by townships or village agricultural societies.

(Source for lead illustration: Mrs. Tice’s farm, on the mountain near Queenston, September 12, 1795, watercolour, artist unknown, Library and Archive of Canada)