A description of Samuel de Champlain’s Habitation in Quebec, built in 1608 carefully notes the location of the settlement’s gardens. This is no accident: while not as flashy as gun emplacements or walls, gardens were no less important to the survival of this or any other colony. By providing fresh food they helped maintain the health of the inhabitants, preventing illness and alleviating the ever-present threat of starvation.
The arrival of HBC meant that European gardening came to be introduced wherever the Company established its posts, no matter how inhospitable. But for HBC gardens were more than just a way to promote the health of its overseas servants: there was a clear economic benefit to them as well.
C.F. McIntyre's wife and family in garden of HBC post at FortWilliam.
Where HBC operated everything had to be imported. Foodstuffs were a major expense and occupied valuable cargo space. As early as 1674 seeds for vegetables and grains were included in the annual outfit shipped overseas, the intent being that posts could grow their own crops, thereby reducing the need for costly importations. But initial results were not encouraging. Grain crops, particularly wheat, rye, barley and oats, did poorly. The London Committee’s belief that North American growing conditions would be the same as those of European locations sharing the same latitude proved to be more optimistic than scientific.
Early Company archives contain much information and correspondence about the success and failure of gardening efforts, not least of which was the difficulty in procuring tools:
Sir, I am sorry that I cannot do better than I have done, as for the Garden I cannot help it for we sowed all the seed that we could spare for we had a very poor last year and this year is as bad as last year and for want of a Spade is as bad … I sent for Spades every year since I came and at last there was one last year and this is the only one that is here …
Joseph Turnor, Frederick House, March 25, 1808.
Certain crops did flourish, even in the harsh Bayside conditions: cabbages, turnips, parsnips, carrots and peas did well, as did mustard greens, potatoes and onions. When the Company moved into the interior after 1774, oats and barley became reliable staples:
John Mannall deserves to be particularly recommended to Your Honours’ Notice by his economical management at Frederick House. He has made a saving of European provisions that will render it unnecessary to send much meat up to that settlement next Spring … He cultivates such quantities of oats that he hath no occasionfor oatmeal from the Factory and has plenty of that article both to serve his men and give the hungry Indians and the expenses of the place are reduced and the trade increased.
John Thomas, Moose Factory, September 20, 1791.
In 1811 what may be the first garden west of the Rockies was producing potatoes, turnips and barley at Fort St. James in the northern interior of B.C. As the Company expanded posts were established whose main function was as logistical support for others. Fort Dunvegan on the Peace River was founded in 1805 by the North West Company (NWC) largely to act as a provisioning post, supplying bison and moose, and maintaining gardens, especially for the brigades. After 1828 its gardens routinely produced 250 or more kegs of potatoes a year (a keg was approx. 9 gallons / 41 litres). Donald Smith, later 28th Governor of HBC, operated a 7 acre farm at North West River in Labrador in the mid 19th c. that was known far and wide. Fertilized by fish offal it grew cucumbers, pumpkins, potatoes and peas, and featured a greenhouse for more tender produce.
“A handy manual of gardening” published by HBC, 1940.
The arrival of the 20th century in no way lessened the desire of the Company for staff gardens. Edith May Griffiths ran a school for white and Métis children at York Factory from 1912-1915. Her memoirs describe the use of techniques such as raised beds and cold frames to achieve success:
On account of being built up summer gardens did well in producing some vegetables … The frost never left the ground deeper than 18 inches. Lettuce and radishes thrived. Potatoes grew slightly smaller and turnips about the size of hen’s eggs.Carrots and beets were small, but good.Peas and beans developed … The garden owned by the Company was near the school. It was enclosed by a picket fence and a gate. The ground was formed in small elevated plots … to take full advantage of the sun’s rays during the long hours of daylight of the short summer … Vegetables that grew above the ground did well. Some things were planted in a hot bed to escape the early frost.
Edith May Griffiths
Page from “How to Grow Gardens at HBC Posts”, 1940.
By the mid-20th century handbooks on gardening could be found in the libraries of all posts of the Fur Trade Department. The health and well-being of both staff and customers in remote areas were a primary concern and gardening was considered a practical means to promote it. Tools, seeds, fertilizer and information were provided free of charge and prizes for the best post gardens encouraged healthy competition. In 1942 proud gardeners could enter the fruits of their labours into one of 4 categories: vegetables; champion vegetables; flowers; Arctic gardens. The Arctic garden competition was restricted to entrants living in the Far North. Perhaps predictably the flower competition was restricted as well: to wives and female relatives of staff!