A Statement of Purpose

Since 2012 I have been responsible for
the garden at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on Antietam National Battlefield. The Pry House garden began as a 19th century style medicinal and kitchen garden, including medicinal plants, herbs, and vegetables. As close as possible, these plants mirrored those available to the Pry Family in the 1860s, meaning heirloom varieties. Since then, the garden has transformed to focus exclusively on medicinal plants, becoming an exhibit of the flora that was employed by military and civilian caregivers in the Civil War Era.

I am strictly an amateur, with no real experience in growing a garden. The purpose of this blog is to document my experiences as I learn by doing. It is anything but authoritative and I welcome any comments and advice for a greenhorn. Please be kind!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Load of Manure

Yesterday we began working outside in the Pry Garden. It was a beautiful day in Washington County, Maryland, sunny and warm. It's hard to believe it is the end of February! My co-worker Tom Frezza and I began adding essential nutrients to the soil in the garden's raised beds. Kent Geerling, Administrative Assistant for Institutional Advancement at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, was kind enough to provide the garden with a load horse manure from a friend's farm. Kent is also a farmer in his spare time, part owner of Fruitcake Farms, a local Maryland venture in Community Supported Agriculture. I also added some wood ashes from my parents' wood stove. They were only too happy to be rid of them.

Horse manure mixed with straw

Tom and I spent a couple hours shoveling the manure and ashes from one big pile and distributing it among the raised beds in the garden. It isn't glamorous, but it was good to be outside on a beautiful day.

Tom's dog Sawyer was very eager to help.

Our fertilizer did not quite stretch far enough to cover the whole garden, but it was enough for the beds which will be planted first in early spring. I will have to see about finding some more manure for the back beds, which will hopefully be planted with squash, gourds, and watermelon from transplants in May. It is very good to look down from second floor porch and see a difference in the garden. In the coming days I will have to begin tilling the soil in these beds. It is a daunting prospect to do this by hand, but hopefully I will have a little help from some friends.

Unfortunately this warm weather has brought some much more unwelcome activity to the Pry House as well. Our resident groundhogs have already begun digging furiously. I had a face-to-face encounter with one of these mangy mongrels yesterday. Not only are they a threat to the garden, but they are serious threat to the safety of historic buildings like the Pry House and Barn, where they have a tendency to burrow under foundations.

Where The Enemy sleeps

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Cure for Your Cough

It’s been over a week since sowing and my seedlings have been coming along, some more quickly than others. Each variety has poked through the surface, with the lobelia, or cardinal flower, making its first appearance yesterday.

Unfortunately, my cabbage sprouts are getting very leggy. Many of them are flopping over. Perhaps I did not sow them deep enough; perhaps they are growing too fast in the warmth; perhaps they are not getting the kind of light they need to be. It is still too cold outside to give them any time in the direct sunlight.

To help improve the light situation, I have found an unused table lamp and screwed in a compact florescent bulb. I have removed the shade and turned the lamp on its side to give the seedlings close exposure to the florescent light. Hopefully this will improve things.

I have been fighting a nasty cold this weekend, and it makes me wish that some of these medicinal herb seedlings were further along. While the efficacy of much of 1800s pharmacology is dubious at best, certain plants are still held to have a very legitimate medical value.

For example, horehound is traditionally used in treatment for sore throats. White horehound is a small flowering perennial plant native to the Mediterranean, but has become ubiquitous all over the world. It is still a common ingredients in natural throat lozenges.

                                        White Horehound                         My Horehound Seedlings

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, and yarrow are believed to boost the immune system. Echinacea is a perennial wildflower native to the Eastern United States and was traditionally used as a medicine by Native Americans. Yarrow is another perennial flowering plant, native to the Western United States and Europe. Both are commonly used as supplements or ingredients in natural cold remedies.

                                    Echinacea Purpurea                           My Echinacea Seedlings
                                              Yarrow                                    My Yarrow Seedlings

Ricola Cough Drops contain several other herbs popular in the Victorian pharmacopoeia, including sage and peppermint, which are already growing in the Pry Garden.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Starting Indoors

It is winter and the Pry Garden is still dormant, but there is already plenty of activity going on inside! This past weekend I sowed the first round of seeds to be transplanted into the garden as the weather warms in coming months. Already, many of them have begun to germinate!

Long before the first seed went into soil, a lot of work has already been done to prepare for the coming growing season. While most people can simply choose what they like to grow in their gardens, I had to do research to find out what kinds of plants would be appropriate in a Civil War era medicinal and kitchen garden. Thankfully there are a number of resources in print and online that discuss different medicinal herbs and their uses during the 1800s. Vegetable plants also require some research, as different fruits and vegetables were sometimes more or less popular in the past than they are today, and the specific varieties that we commonly enjoy often did not exist over a century ago.

Acquiring seeds for a 19th century garden can be a little bit more challenging, but the internet has made that easier. It's not as simple as going down the street to the local garden store and picking out your favorite seed packets of Burpee's best hybrids. Thankfully, there is a growing community of people dedicated to preserving and sharing the seeds of historical heirloom crops. Most of my seeds were selected and purchased online from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, as well as Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. These were far from the only reputable places offering a wide variety of heirloom seeds, but they happened to have most of what I was looking for all together.

The seedlings I have already started are Jersey Wakefield cabbage, Jaune Paille Des Vertus onions, and five different medicinal herbs: White Horehound, Yarrow, Echinacea, Toothache Plant, and Lobelia.

Look at how tiny these Yarrow seeds are!

I am using a simple, store-bought seed-starting kit to begin my seeds. It has 72 cells for different seedlings and a clear plastic cover to keep things moist, especially while seeds are still germinating. I keep this in the basement with our wood-burning stove to keep nice and warm. The planter is near a window and under artificial light, but unfortunately I do not have a florescent lamp, which would be even better.

My cabbage seeds popped up out of the soil after only a couple of days, and they are still looking great! The Jersey Wakefield Cabbage was introduced some time in the early1840s and remains a popular cabbage variety in home gardens today. If all goes well, it should produce small, compact heads of cabbage in the spring. 

Cabbage Sprouts