Gardening & agriculture in 1867: What’s changed in 150 years?

What do you think gardening in Ontario was like 150 years ago? The Halton Food Council pondered this question at a recent meeting in light of the upcoming sesquicentennial anniversary of the Confederation of Canada. We thought it would be interesting to highlight what has changed with gardening, and what hasn’t changed. Maybe people grew a wider variety of plants. Maybe some of those heirloom varieties we plant today were the standard back in 1867. We dug into the history archives of google to find out.

Photo Courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Turtle Island before Canada

It’s important to highlight that long before Canada became a country, generations of Indigenous people lived on the land going back until time immemorial. First Nations around the lower Great Lakes Region had their own agricultural methods that were likely still practiced in 1867. Their staple crops were two types of maize, squash, and climbing beans.1 The companion planting technique used to plant these three crops was called the three sisters. The maize stocks would grow skywards, the climbing beans would grow up the maize stock, the spiky stems of the squash plants would deter pests and the leaves would prevent weeds from growing. Beans are a legume a, nitrogen fixing plant and would therefore not compete for nitrogen with the maize or squash. This successful agriculture method was vital for the first settlers of Canada and it provided food for the first hunters of the fur trade.

Upper Canada and Ontario

Over the years, more Europeans settled throughout the Great Lakes Region which was then called Upper Canada. Most settlers became farmers and agriculture was dominated by wheat which was easy to grow. Wheat was a staple crop and was shipped over to Britain. Many of the settlers were United Empire Loyalists who settled in Canada after the American Revolution and received land for cheap or even for free.

One of the farming techniques used at the time is known as wheat mining which is the repeated sowing of wheat until the soil became exhausted. The harvests could drop from 300 bushels to 25 bushels. When the land was depleted, the farmer would sell it to incoming settlers. This was done so farmers could pay off their land debts quicker.

By the time of Confederation, 80% of Canada’s population lived in rural areas and subsistence farming was the predominant occupation. Farmers had adopted better farming techniques and used horse powered plowing. The population of Ontario was around 1.6 million people, which is approximately 1 million less than the current population of Toronto.

What did people grow?

After scouring the internet, the list below came together on the different varieties of seeds that were planted by Canadian farmers in the 1860s.2,3,4 It is not comprehensive and is derived from a number of sources.

Sources indicate that the diets back in the 1860s were monotonous – that is not as diverse as what we enjoy today. Diets would have revolved around the seasonality of the crops, and the accessibility of some crop seeds may have been limited and/or expensive. Furthermore, Ontario’s first canning factory wasn’t built until the 1880s5 so diets revolved around what was fresh or what could be pickled. This would have made vegetable gardening less of a hobby, and more of a necessity.

Some key takeaways from compiling the list is that there were many tomato, bean and potato varieties. The large variety of these three crops indicates that they may have been more popular than other crops. Multiple varieties of squash and corn are highlighted as they are part of the “three sisters” agricultural method used by First Nations.

Tomatoes
- Brandywine – This was a famous heirloom variety that is similar to the beefsteak tomato.
- Cherokee Purple – This was similar to Brandywine but had a sweet, rich smoky flavor and a distinct dusty rose colour.
- Red Pear – This variety was very old dating back to the early 1800s and was very productive, bearing smaller red coloured pear shaped fruits.
- Yellow Bell – This was also quite a productive plant with yellow, meaty and drier pear shaped fruits.
- Yellow Pear – Another very old variety that was easy to grow and low in acid. The fruits were yellow, small, sweet and juicy.

Beans and Peas
- Black Valentine – This was a productive green bean with stringless pods.
- Cherokee Trail of Tears – Originally grown by the Cherokee and brought over during the infamous journey of from the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma where 4000 Cherokee perished in 1839. These beans start off green and turn purple.
- Kentucky Pole Beans – A standard variety since the 1800s with oval or flat pods and a nutty flavor.
- Navy Bush Bean – This was a popular bean grown that was one of the best varieties for baking, stews and soups.
- Scarlet Runner – This variety has been grown across North America since the 1800s, growing large vines up to 15 ft. tall with attractive flowers.
- Tom Thumb Dwarf Snow Pea – This dates back to the 1800s and was selected over time for its height. It is a good variety for container growing.

Corn
- Bloody Butcher – This was a colourful corn variety with maroon and black kernels that produced 2 ears per stock and had good drought tolerance.
- Stowell’s Evergreen – This was introduced in 1848 and was popular for both home gardens and market growers.

Squash
- Acorn – Dates back to 1835 with green lobed, yellow orange flesh. Acorn squash was good to bake and kept fairly well.
- Early Yellow Crookneck – This summer squash variety was best eaten when small, tender and smooth and dates back to 1700, perhaps used by First Nations.
- Vegetable Marrow – This was a very productive squash variety dating back to 1824.

Leafy Greens
- Collards: Georgia Southern – This variety was chosen for its tolerance to cold, heat and drought.
- Kale: Lacinato/Dinosaur – This variety is highly nutritious and has large dark green leaves that produce all season long.
- Lettuce: Tennis Ball – Introduced in the 1850s, this variety was ideal for small gardens and grew best in cold weather.
- Lettuce: Black Seeded Simpson – This variety was introduced in the 1850s and created perennial lettuce beds by reseeding itself.
- Spinach: Prickly seeded – This variety is described as “interesting” and very adaptable. It dates back to 1806.
- Swiss Chard: Fordhook Giant – Dating back to 1750, this variety had dark green leaves and white stalks. It was very hardy and could overwinter.

Other Vegetables
- Beet: Chioggia – This was brought over from Italy during the 1840s and was popular for pickling. These beets have a distinctive bullseye when sliced.
- Broccoli: Calabrese – This variety is still popular today as it can grow quite large.
- Cabbage: Early Jersey Wakefield – This cabbage was introduced in the 1840s.
- Carrot: Lunar White – These extremely sweet carrots are white instead of orange and have now become very rare.
- Cucumber: Long Green – Brought over in 1842, it had large fruits that were good for slicing.
- Kohlrabi: Early Purple Vienna – Brought from Europe in the 1860s, this variety has a bluish purple bulb on sturdy stock and crisp white fles.h
- Leek: Musselburgh – This variety came from Scotland in 1834 and had thick white stalks that overwintered well.
- Onion: Dutch Shallot – Dating back to the 1860s, it kept well and multiplied in small clusters.
- Potato: Caribe – White fleshed and purple skinned, this potato was popular in Northeast North America in the 1800s.
- Pumpkin: Small Sugar Pumpkin – Introduced in 1860, this had a small meaty deep orange flesh which was perfect for pies.
- Radish: Cincinnati Long Scarlet – This had long, tapered, deep red coloured roots with a white flesh.
- Turnip: Purple Top White Globe – Grown for its sweet and mild white flesh and dark green leaves that were edible.

From the list, it is plain to see that there were many plants being grown in Ontario in 1867. However, it is likely that not all of these plants were grown by all farmers and gardeners. There are also a few plant types that are missing from this list. Plants that seem to have been introduced later include peppers, ground cherry, zucchini, arugula, cauliflower, eggplant, asparagus, celery, bok choy, and tatsoi, just to name a few. Perhaps next summer you might want to travel back in time and purchase some heirloom varieties to get a taste of tomatoes from 1867, or experiment with the 3 sister growing technique.

By Nate Van Beilen

1 History of Agriculture in the Second World War
2 Terra Edibles Heirloom Seeds
3 Urban Harvest
4 Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul
5 Historica Canada Fruit and Vegetable Industry