Do Green Thumbs Run in Your Family?

Family History
13 May 2020
by Rebecca Dalzell

For many of us, gardening is a way to connect with nature, but it’s also a link to our past: It brings back memories of Mom’s favorite flowers or Grandma’s prized vegetable garden.

Here are five ways to explore the timeless pastime while connecting with your family story.

1 Look for professionals in the family

You might come from a line of skilled gardeners.

Most of us have ancestors who tilled the land in some capacity, since many Americans once lived on farms.But you might also have descended from a real pro.

In the 1940 U.S. Census alone, over 75,000 said they worked as professional gardeners. Thousands more were florists.

Search photo archives and you could even uncover a photo of the family shop.

An early 20th-century flower shop.
T.G. Harvey Florist, an early 20th-century shop.

You might even have a family connection to Louisa Yeomans King the first president of the Women’s National Farm & Garden Association. Or a famed botanist like Luther Burbank who developed more than 800 varieties and strains of plans including the plumcot.

2 Choose seeds that evoke your heritage

Flowers are often living reminders of people we love. You could plant your mother's favorite lilacs or the bluebells that grew behind your grandmother's house.

Flowers can also help us connect with ancestors we never knew. A family member’s January birthday could inspire you to plant snowdrops, that month’s birth flower.

If you discover that your relatives immigrated from France, for instance, you might grow irises, the country’s national flower. Mexican heritage might lead you to plant marigolds, while Southeast Asian roots inspire you to try jasmine.

3 Find fellow enthusiasts

You can be a serious gardener without calling it your job.

High school yearbooks are a great place to explore your family members’ interests, like if they joined a horticultural club or participated in the home economics flower show.

A yearbook photo of a 1912 horticulture club.
Horticulture Club, State College of Washington, 1912.

Local newspapers are another rich resource, reporting on garden club activities in surprising detail.

Stories sometimes include names of gardeners prominent in their community, so you might find that an ancestor ran the flower show committee or won top prizes at a town fair.

4 Get old-fashioned tips

Regional papers often had a weekly gardening column, so you can browse your ancestors' local broadsheet to see what grew in the area and imagine what sprouted in the fields around their house.

It’s fun to read the gardening advice, which opine about everything from combating fungus to cultivating raspberries.

Gardening tips appearing in the Denton Journal in 1898.
Denton Journal, Denton, Maryland, July 16, 1898.

For instance this 1898 publication advised,

“Beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips, and such things should be thinned out as soon as the plants are large enough to handle.”

as well as

“When the plow is used, care must be taken that it is run shallow, or severe injury results, since the roots of the raspberry lie very near the surface.”

Newspapers might also give you a sense of the blights and droughts your relatives contended with in the days before Miracle-Gro and sprinklers—making their work seem all the more impressive.

5 Explore family gardens

Old photos bring lost gardens alive.

Images from other members or archival resources might include images of your ancestors in their backyard rose garden or peony field, or standing next to their prizewinning chrysanthemums.

A family in a field of peonies.
Family in a field of prizewinning peonies.

Photo collections are ripe with ideas of what to plant. You might not be able to recreate a relative’s impressive Victory Garden in your own backyard, but you can still channel their effort in a modest vegetable patch.


What’ll You Discover?

If you love gardening, it could run in your family—and you might be surprised by who in your family, how far back, had a green thumb.

How deep do your gardening roots run? Get 14-days of free access to Ancestry® to find out.

Ancestry tip: You can find gardening tips in the Newspapers collection on Ancestry to uncover generations of knowledge from around the country.