The recreated kitchen garden at Schneider Haus National Historic Site represents a traditional Pennsylvania-German settler's garden of the mid 1800s in Ontario. It contains some of the most typically grown vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants of the time and is set out in the four square plan favoured by Mennonites.
The four beds allowed crops to be rotated which helped to control pests. The raised soil beds ensured fast spring warming and early planting, extending the productivity of the garden by allowing additional planting as the season progressed. The size of the garden varied with the size of the family. The Schneider Haus garden is somewhat smaller than the average size of 55 to 66 square feet.
The garden contained vegetables, culinary herbs, flowers and medicinal herbs, the produce of which the family depended heavily upon throughout the entire year.
The interior beds of the garden were planted with vegetables, while herbs were generally planted along the borders just inside the garden gate. A picket fence enclosed the garden, principally to keep the barnyard animals out. The fence was whitewashed every spring, generally a child's chore, with a mixture of unslaked lime mixed with water to a thickness so that it could be applied with a brush.
Once the men in the family had worked the spring manure into the garden, they took no further part in its upkeep. They were more concerned with the Schtick later called the truck patch, an area dug beyond the fence for larger crops such as corn and potatoes. Today, a small Schtick is located on the other side of Queen Street.
The women tended the garden assisted by the children. The children knew not to leave footmarks on the freshly turned earth of the beds so they walked between the rows of vegetables on a board provided for the purpose and spent hours keeping the paths free of weeds. On Sunday, no work was done, but visitors were taken outside to admire the progress of the garden.
Self-sufficiency was of paramount importance to early settlers and the garden played a major role in providing food for the long winter months. Drying and pickling were two methods used to preserve garden produce. The fermentation of cabbage to make sauerkraut was another. Large quantities of cabbage were grown for this purpose. Cabbage seedlings were started in the Grautkutch, a type of coldframe raised high off the ground to guard against insects and frost, and later transplanted to the garden. Other plants were started in standard cold frames or in clay pots in the house.
Planting was often ruled by astrological signs. Plants such as beans and cucumbers which grew above the ground were planted in the sign of Gemini (the twins) during the ascent of the moon, but seeds for plants below the ground were put in the soil during the sign of Libra (the scales), when the moon was in descent. Certain days were favoured for planting specific plants, for example in Pennsylvania, St. Gertrauts' Day on March 17, was considered as suitable for cabbage. Failure to follow these values, it was believed, would result in bug-infested plants.
Dialect names were given to the plants in the garden, names which often reflected the plant's primary use. Savory was called Bohnegreidel (bean plant) because it was a favoured seasoning for green beans. Sweet basil was called Fersomlingshaus Graut because its spicy fragrance could freshen the air and bunches were taken by the women to the Meeting House during the summer weather.
Folk-lore often dictated where in the garden a plant should be grown. Two medicinal plants Alder Mon (Old Man) and Aldy Frau (Old Woman) were traditionally placed well apart on either side of the gate, otherwise "Der Ald Mon macht die Aldy Fraut doet" - the old man would kill the old woman.
Many of the vegetable seeds planted at Schneider Haus are the result of careful research of 1800s vegetables conducted by groups such as Seeds of Diversity Canada, and the heirloom Seed Project at Landis Valley, Pennsylvania. These specimens approximate the varieties the Schneiders had, resembling them closely in growth, taste, genetic make-up and, in some cases, lack of quality and resistance to disease. Seeds from the garden are saved annually to be replanted the following growing season, a practice the family also followed. Small linen bags were used to store seeds.
Throughout the year the museum's interpretation includes the four-square garden. In the spring our Plant a Seed theme weekend is dedicated to the garden. Should this change to In the spring our Getting Ready for Spring theme weekend when staff clean their tools, turning over the soil, starting seeds and more.
In the summer months, each day the staff focuses on the garden, in addition to daily themes. On fall weekends, the staff focuses on the drying and preserving of the harvest.