Putting Down Roots: Gardening Insights from Wisconsin's Early Settlers

By Marcia C. Carmichael

Paperback: $24.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-466-1

256 pages, 186 b/w and color photos and illus., 8 x 9"


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Culture and history can be passed from one generation to the next through the food we eat, the vegetables and fruits we plant and harvest, and the fragrant flowers and herbs that enliven our gardens. The plants our ancestors grew tell stories about their way of life.

Wisconsin's 19th century settlers arrived in the New World in search of new opportunities and the chance to create a better life. These European immigrants and Yankee settlers brought their traditional foodways with them. Their family recipes and the seeds, roots, and slips of cherished plants served as comfort food, in the truest sense.

This part of our collective history comes alive at Old World Wisconsin's recreated 19th century heirloom gardens. In "Putting Down Roots," historical gardener Marcia C. Carmichael guides us through these gardens, sharing insights on why the owners of the original houses - be they Yankee settlers, German, Norwegian, Irish, Danish, Polish, or Finnish immigrants - planted and harvested what they did. She shares timeless lessons with today's gardeners and cooks about planting trends and practices, garden tools used by early settlers, popular plant varieties, and favorite flavors of Wisconsin's early settlers, including recipes for such classics as Irish soda bread, pierogi, and Norwegian rhubarb custard.

"Putting Down Roots" celebrates the diversity and rich ethnic settlement of Wisconsin. It's also a story of holding fast to one's traditions and adapting to new ways that nourished one's family so they could flourish in their new surroundings.

To receive a review copy or press release, to schedule an author event, or for more information contact the WHS Press Marketing Department: whspress@wisconsinhistory.org.

Marcia C. Carmichael is the historical gardener at the 576-acre Old World Wisconsin, the largest of the Wisconsin Historical Society's living history museums, where she exercises her passion for historical accuracy and enjoys the research as much as the design, creation, and nurturing of the museum's heritage gardens. She supervises and works alongside a dedicated group of historical garden volunteers to create period-appropriate gardens and appreciates all aspects of heirloom plants, from propagation to harvest and from folklore to fact.

Watch "Putting Down Roots" author Marcia Carmichael discuss the book, its connection to Wisconsin historic site Old World Wisconsin, and the joys of heirloom gardening.

Author Q&A
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Putting Down Roots?"

Marcia Carmichael: Writing "Putting Down Roots" gave me the opportunity to share a wealth of information about the plants and gardens grown by early settlers in the Upper Midwest, based on extensive research of original 19th and early 20th century sources, including material collected by Old World Wisconsin staff over the last 35 years. By focusing on the garden and food traditions of different immigrant populations, I was able to showcase the rich ethnic diversity of early Wisconsin settlers.

WHS Press: Since you work with historical gardens at Old World Wisconsin, how was writing "Putting Down Roots" a personal experience?

MC: The opportunity to pursue extensive research has brought me an even greater appreciation for the strengths, challenges, and triumphs of early settlers. I feel a close connection to and continuity with people of previous generations who dreamed, planned, planted, nurtured, and harvested their gardens. At Old World Wisconsin, I strive to create gardens with which the original settlers would be comfortable and pleased. I feel a special warmth for the women who brought precious plants as remembrances from their homeland, and generously passed them on, allowing others to enjoy them.

WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned about the different gardening techniques of Wisconsin's immigrants?

MC: I have been surprised by how little gardening advice has changed through the years. Gardeners of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries could easily converse with each other, commiserate over the universal challenges of weather, weeds, and pests, and rejoice in each other's successes.

And gardeners have always found the creativity to design whatever tool or device is needed to accomplish the task at hand.

WHS Press: How is this book unique to Wisconsin? Why is it important to know the history of gardening in Wisconsin?

MC: "Putting Down Roots" examines the contents of 19th and early 20th century Wisconsin gardens, as well as the implements and printed resources commonly used by the state’s residents. The book also provides a sampling of typical period-appropriate recipes, highlighting various ethnic groups. Photographs of re-created gardens planted and maintained at Old World Wisconsin are evidence that gardens can exist despite the climatic challenges of the Upper Midwest!

Gardens provided sustenance as well as beauty for early Wisconsin settlers. Food, medicine, insect repellents, dyes for coloring, sweet fragrances – so many of life's essentials depended on harvests from the garden. With the current interest in treating the environment gently, gardening organically, and eating locally grown food, many people are looking back to the gardening practices of previous generations.

WHS Press: What is your favorite recipe from the book?

MC: The recipes included in "Putting Down Roots" were chosen to highlight garden produce that may be as easily grown in and harvested from today's gardens as it was more than 100 years ago. Great satisfaction may be found in growing and using heirloom varieties when preparing recipes of our ancestors. I enjoy the unusual, and am pleased to share historical recipes for pickling radish pods and for soothing coughs. I’m partial to desserts, so I also searched 19th century recipe collections for sweets to include in the book. 

WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "Putting Down Roots?"

MC: I hope readers will take pride in their own ethnic heritage and perhaps become interested in looking to their own roots. I hope they find inspiration to create their own gardens and possibly include at least a few old fashioned plants. If we continue the tradition of sharing treasured plants, cut bouquets, recipes, family memories – whatever we value – with others, we will experience the joys of generations.

2011 Council for Wisconsin Writers
Honorable Mention for the Ellis-Henderson Outdoor Writing Prize

2011 Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Awards
Winner in the Midwest Regional Interest-Text Category

2011 ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Awards
Finalist in the Home & Gardening Category

2011 USA National Best Book Awards
Finalist in the Home: Gardening Category

2012 American Horiticultural Society
Winner of Annual Book Award

2012 Living Now Book Awards
Bronze in the Gardening/Farming/Landscaping Category

Author Interviews
Stephanie Lecci interviewed author Marcia Carmichael. The interview originally aired on Thursday, June 9, 2011 on the "Lake Effect" program, 89.7 FM WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio.

Larry Meiller interviewed Marcia Carmichael on Tuesday, September 27, 2011 on the "The Larry Meiller Show" on Wisconsin Public Radio's Ideas Network.

Terese Allen, coauthor of "The Flavor of Wisconsin" and Organic Valley Food Editor

“How do you read a garden? Read it the way Marcia Carmichael does and you’ll learn about so much more than plants. Her rich, readable guide to the historical gardens at Old World Wisconsin explores the multi-layered meanings of food in nineteenth-century life. This is real-life, everyday history — not dates and titles, but seeds, tools, recipes, and meals that illustrate immigrant hopes, values, and traditions. "Putting Down Roots" is an entrancing heirloom feast for today’s cooks, gardeners, and food history buffs.”

Shelley Ryan, host of "The Wisconsin Gardener" on Wisconsin Public Television
“For anyone interested in gardening or cooking with heirlooms, "Putting Down Roots" is a marvelous resource. If you can’t visit Old World Wisconsin in person, this book is the next best thing to being there. Recipes such as black salsify salad, potato candy, and more recapture the flavors of Wisconsin’s past. What a treat!”

Jenniver Fandel, "ForeWord Reviews"
"In a time when people are increasingly concerned about organic gardening practices and the need for more variety in our plants for the health of the planet, Carmichael shows readers the value in drawing from the past for the good of the present. For avid gardeners and simple admirers of other people's gardens alike, "Putting Down Roots" is an absorbing book of Wisconsin's history and culture."

This feature by Laurie Arendt appeared in the May 2011 issue of "M Magazine."

Genealogical Gardening

"They definitely brought seeds, tubers and cuttings from the Old Country," says Marcia Carmichael, historic gardens coordinator at Old World Wisconsin. "And when they arrived, they attempted to grow them. They had some pretty great expectations here in the Midwest with our good soil. But they didn’t realize that in addition to our cold winters, Wisconsin also has beastly hot summers."

Through trial and error, heritage gardens eventually help sustain those early immigrant families. Generations later, a trend among home gardeners is to revisit those heritage plantings in their own gardens.

"A great place to start is by checking family recipes — you'll be able to tell which vegetables and herbs were used in your grandmother and great-grandmother’s kitchen," suggests Carmichael. "From there, you can make a list of what you’d like to plant."

She says 21st century gardeners are quite fortunate in that heirloom seeds and plants are much easier to source than they have been in previous decades.

"You can go to Seed Savers Exchange and find a lot of them," she says. "Or you can try and source them locally or through friends and family members."

She encourages beginning heirloom gardeners to cut themselves a little slack in the beginning.

"If you know your family grew cabbage for example, it's perfectly find to just plant the kind of cabbage you remember without worrying about a specific variety," she says. "There's this belief that the old gardeners planted single, specific types of plants, but we've found there was a lot more variety than has been assumed. I also think our modern palates are more sophisticated, so there's a chance that the exact herb your great-grandparents grew may not appeal to you at all."

Another good source for home heirloom gardeners is Carmichael's new book, "Putting Down Roots," which is being released this spring by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The book details the work and research surrounding many of the heritage gardens now established at Old World Wisconsin. It can also serve as a blueprint for anyone drawing their inspiration from those particular ethnic groups.

"There are also distinct differences between the gardens," says Carmichael. "For example, we know that a lot of the early American gardeners laid out their gardens like the European monastery gardens, with small beds that could be weeded by hand since they didn't have any tilling equipment."

She says there are aesthetic differences, too.

"The Scandinavian gardens, well … they were pretty bland and sparse," she laughs. "But that was because so little grew in their cold climates and they were accustomed to that kind of gardening. And the Poles and Germans often planted herbs, vegetables and flowers in the same little square, so they had very colorful, merry gardens."

While early gardeners weren't concerned with landscaping, they often planted flowers, both in the garden itself and near their homes where they could be easily seen and bring "something pretty" into what was often a very hardscrabble life, particularly for women.

Carmichael will spend this growing season working throughout the various heritage gardens at Old World Wisconsin. So what’s her favorite?

"It's whichever garden I'm working in," she says diplomatically. "I feel something for every garden; each one is special to me."

This feature by Mary Bergin appeared in the "Green Bay Press-Gazette" on Friday, May 6, 2011.

A look at state's 'roots'

May is a month of hope and faith for gardeners who begin with seeds or fragile stalks and dream of a cornucopia of color and food.

A shady yard, brown thumbs and limited dedication challenge my success, but even visions of spindly tomatoes and out-of-control perennials get me revved up during this time of year. It's time to shake off winter's blankets and take on the weeds of spring.

Now add "Putting Down Roots: Garden Insights from Wisconsin's Early Settlers" by Marcia Carmichael (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $24.95), which offers new reasons to pay attention to what grows here and why.

Deep roots, in this book, mean ethnic heritage and habits that help explain what we choose to grow and pass on to the next generation. The author is the historical gardener at Old World Wisconsin, a 576-acre living-history museum in Waukesha County, one of 11 state historical sites and museums.

We learn why Yankee settlers and six nations of immigrants planted what they did, how they gardened and what they typically did with the harvest. How did a German's garden differ from a Finn's? This new resource explains.

"Putting Down Roots" is a mix of recipes, history and folklore, just as Old World Wisconsin is a historically accurate reproduction of ethic and heirloom gardens, from plot design to plant species.

Today's average gardeners "are fortunate to have access to seeds and plant material from around the world, making it possible to create their own ethnic gardens filled with heirloom plants," Marcia writes.

"As you continue the tradition of passing along these heirlooms, you will experience the joys these garden treasures have brought to people for generations."

This review by Jennifer Fandel appeared in "ForeWord Reviews" in May 2011.

Walk into a garden and you can find more than tomatoes heavy on the vine, trellises filled with green beans, and rows of flowers meant to please the eye and occasionally the palate. History and culture are planted there. This is the premise of "Putting Down Roots" by Marcia C. Carmichael, the historical gardener at Old World Wisconsin, the largest of Wisconsin’s living history museums.

In this fascinating cultural history amply complemented with 188 contemporary and historic photographs and illustrations, Carmichael examines the gardening practices and related traditional foodways that Wisconsin’s Yankee settlers and major European immigrant groups— the Germans, Norwegians, Irish, Danish, Finnish, and Polish—brought with them to their new state in the nineteenth century. The author bases the book on her research and gardening at the 576-acre Old World Wisconsin, which contains traditional immigrant homes moved from their original homesites throughout the state, as well as nineteenth-century heirloom gardens specific to each immigrant group. The color photographs of these gardens are not only educational but inspiring.

The helpful introduction presents a brief history of the first European immigration to Wisconsin and what that meant—particularly in a state known for its harsh climate—in terms of gardening. The rest of the book, set up in chapters by nationality, looks at planting trends, particular garden tools, popular plant varieties, and favorite foods and meals, including easy-to- follow recipes. Within the chapters, Carmichael uses as examples the family histories of those who owned the homes in Old World Wisconsin to give readers a true feel for the people who worked the gardens and relied on them for sustenance.

Additionally, each chapter contains interesting sidebars; advertisements for tools, seeds, and available land; and documents illustrating garden plans and gardening techniques. The appendix contains tables of the plants commonly grown by each of the groups. For further reading, Carmichael includes extensive notes by chapter and a selected bibliography.

In a time when people are increasingly concerned about organic gardening practices and the need for more variety in our plants for the health of the planet, Carmichael shows readers the value in drawing from the past for the good of the present. For avid gardeners and simple admirers of other people’s gardens alike, "Putting Down Roots" is an absorbing book of Wisconsin’s history and culture.