Vernacular Yardscapes

The yard is a significant aspect of Mississippi’s rural culture and history. The term yardscape often refers to the domestic compound surrounding the house and containing structures, artifacts, art, and areas for growing plants and trees, doing household chores, socializing, and raising livestock. The yard also sometimes functions as a compound that contains multiple dwellings whose residents are connected by extended kinship networks. Yardscapes are also referred to as houseyards or vernacular yards: they belong to ordinary people and are not designed by landscape architects.

The yardscape is integrated with other aspects of culture such as economic status, foodways, gender, and ethnicity. Scholars from many disciplines, including archaeology, folklore, cultural geography, and landscape architecture, have studied houseyards or yardscapes. Studies often focus on the ties between past and present layout, the yardscapes’ function, and their material culture. Students of contemporary vernacular yardscapes often focus on the traditional gardening and other subsistence activities, social behavior, and folk art displayed in the yard.

In Mississippi, rural small farmers, enslaved people, and tenants used their yards for subsistence purposes. They slept and stored materials in the dwellings, but most of daily life—cooking, washing, gardening, child care, and animal tending—occurred in the domestic outdoor space surrounding the dwellings. Outbuildings such as livestock pens, outhouses, kitchens, storage pits, and smokehouses were found in the yard area, with the most necessary located close to the house and the less desirable, like the outhouse, located on the periphery of the yard. The domestic space around the house contained chickens, pigs, and milk cows and a water source such as a well or a cistern; streams or other bodies of water were often located close by. People hunted and fished and gathered wild berries, nuts, and fruits from nearby woods. The kitchen garden was vital for survival, providing vegetables, fruit, and herbs for most of the year.

One major component of the yardscape both today and in the past is the garden. Native Americans, European Americans, and African Americans have profoundly affected the nature of the garden. Native American crops that are still grown in today’s gardens include corn, beans, squash, gourds, and sunflowers. European Americans in Mississippi, mostly Scots-Irish and English, brought many fruits and vegetables grown in Europe, including some that were South American in origin—potatoes, tomatoes, and lima beans. They also imposed a lasting structure on the landscape through the utilitarian division of space in land use. African Americans brought with them many traditions as well as crops such as rice, okra, black-eyed peas, cassava, yams, kidney beans, millet, and sorghum.

Yard layout and use remained similar between the antebellum and postbellum eras, although emancipation and modernization affected material culture and land use. The divisions of social and physical spaces, mass production of goods, mechanization, capitalism, the railroad industry, and the modernization of houses affected postbellum and contemporary houseyards. At the turn of the twentieth century increased access to the market brought more outbuildings, more space, and more tools into the houseyard area. The division of labor according to gender became more visible with the advent of Victorian values: women cooked and tended the gardens and children, while men’s chores revolved around the livestock and farming.

World War II modernized farming and household maintenance, bringing many upkeep activities like dishwashing, cooking, and laundry indoors. However, scholars studying how contemporary people use yards in less industrialized areas such the Caribbean and the Deep South have shown that many people, especially the elderly, still engage in yard sweeping, livestock care, child care, and gardening based on traditions passed on through generations. For example, some people still garden by the moon, burn trash, make soap, churn butter, use plants and herbs for healing, and pick their residences according to proximity to kin. Contemporary vernacular landscapes bear the imprint of modernization but still show close ties to the rural nature of Mississippi. Today, studies of yardscapes focus largely on gardening and the display of folk art.

Further Reading

  • Jennifer Abraham, “Ethnoarchaeology of Rural African-American Houseyards, Natchez Mississippi” (master’s thesis, University of Southern Mississippi, 2001)
  • Jennifer Abraham, Mississippi Folklife (Summer 1998)
  • Michael Craton, Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica (1978)
  • Brad M. Duplantis, “An Archaeological Search for Activity Areas: A Case Study of an African-American Yard at Oakley Plantation, West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 1999)
  • Jerome S. Handler and Frederick W. Lange, Plantation Slavery in Barbados: An Archaeological and Historical Investigation (1978)
  • John M. Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (1993)
  • Richard Westmacott, African American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South (1992)
  • Laurie Wilkie, Southeastern Archaeology Conference Newsletter (1994)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Vernacular Yardscapes
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 3, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 14, 2018