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, November 28, 2012

Clean-Up and Compost

Winter is not very far away, so I am currently working on preparing the garden for the cold months ahead. The annual plants are all done for the year and it is time to remove and dispose of them. Many of the plants are perennials, so they will come back when the weather warms in the spring. Some of these perennials can use a little maintenance now.

I had a few radishes that were forgotten and they have grow to tremendous size! Even though they were allowed to grow so long, they were neither bitter nor hot, but sweet and tasty! Perhaps this was because they grew in the cooler fall months.

I also had a few turnips that never really grew. I gave up on these ones and pulled them out. Most of the turnips were very successful though and all have been picked and enjoyed by museum staff with dinner. I am sorry that I neglected to get a picture before they were all eaten!

Perennial herbs like winter savory and oregano will remain a little bit green over the winter, but the early frosts cause them to die back a little bit. Also, I had never trimmed these plants after they flowered and went to seed.

With a sturdy pair of scissors, I cut back most of the dead matter. According to literature I have been reading, pruning the dead parts will not only improve things aesthetically, but will help to reduce disease and encourage good growth in the spring. I did not butcher the plants though, and I wanted to leave it with a little insulation and security for winter.

Other perennials will die back completely above the surface and will restart from the roots in the spring. Boneset or Thoroughwort is an example of this.

Pokeweed also dies back completely in the winter and sprouts anew in the spring. The young early greens are an old American delicacy, served much like collard greens. Picked too late though, poke greens become poisonous. These pokeweed plants had grown so thick and woody that I had to use a hatchet instead of garden shears to take them down.

Although the pokeweed was too woody and full of seeds (which might sprout in unwanted places), most of the waste matter from the garden is composted. I have been dabbling in composting this year, with limited success. All of my trimmings from this clean-up were added to the compost pile.

I chopped up all of this green matter into smaller pieces to help it break down better in the compost pile. I build the compost pile with layers of green matter, brown matter, and dirt to help the process of decomposition.

Now that winter is almost here, the compost pile will essentially come to a halt. What I am adding now will really begin to break down in the spring, I hope. Some people engage in winter composting, but this is not something I am ready to tackle, as it's a bit more work and requires some extra size or construction to keep the necessary heat in cold months. Next season I would like to engage more seriously in  the compost pile.

Most experts have their own opinion on winterizing garden plants, and they certainly don't always agree. I have tried to follow the best advice I could find in this regard, but it is very much a learning process. Your constructive advice is always appreciated!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Seeds and Salamanders

It has been a long time since my last post on this blog, but I am going to be more faithful about keeping things up to date! It is mid-November and the garden is preparing to go dormant for the winter months. I hope that I can find enough subject matter to keep posting regularly during the cold.

It is fall, so many of the plants in the garden are producing seeds which might overwinter and sprout in the spring. I am making an effort to collect some of those seeds and store them for future planting. Seed catalogs and companies were not a large institution in the United States until the late 19th century. Prior to that, most home gardeners collected seeds in their own garden from year to year, or shared seeds and cuttings with neighbors.

One of the advantages to growing heirloom varieties of fruit, vegetables, and other plants is that they will usually produce viable, true seeds to replant the next year. Many modern plants popular in in both vegetable and ornamental gardens will produce a sterile seed, not capable of growing another plant. Even viable seeds from hybrid plants will generally not grow into the same variety of plant which bore them.

Most of the seeds which I have been collecting from the garden are not from vegetables, but the medicinal plants and herbs in the garden. I will take some space to show a few of the seeds I have been working with.

The Toothache Plant is an annual, meaning that it will have to be replanted from seed in the spring.

The seeds are very small. each dried flower head contains scores of seeds.

While many medicinal plants used during the 19th century are now viewed as poisonous, the toothache plant is not. When eaten raw, the leaves and flowers will produce a mild sour, tingling, and numbing sensation in the mouth and throat, making it an effective treatment for toothaches and sore throats. Many Eastern cultures still use the plant in food, both cooked and as a raw green. Here at the Pry House, we have enjoyed tasting the plant and experiencing it's unique effect in the mouth.

White Horehound is another popular 19th century medicinal plant which is still considered safe and edible. Many people still use horehound, usually in lozenges, to relieve sore throats, improve digestion, and reduce inflammation. I also believe that it tastes very pleasant in candies.

Horehound seeds are even smaller than Toothache Plants and very difficult to extract. In frustration, I gathered many of the seed pods to spend time later in extracting the seeds. Horehound is a perennial plant, however, meaning that it will survive the winter and return in the spring without sowing new seeds. These seeds will only be necessary if I wish to grow new plants or the existing ones should have a mishap.

Not all of plants going to seed in the garden were intentionally planted there. Some are volunteers that most gardeners would consider weeds, but because they were used by people in the 1860s, I have left them. Sweet Annie, for example is growing all throughout the garden. It is getting ready to scatter it's tiny seeds (smaller than a pinhead) to winter in the soil.

 I have not found any medicinal use for it in the United States during the Civil War (I am still looking!), but it was used for making wreaths and garlands because of it's unique, strong, sweet scent. I do not care for smell of Sweet Annie, but I seem to be alone in this. The plant is not native to the United States, but it has become an incredibly common weed across the country.

Another great volunteer has been Jimson Weed, also called Datura. Jimson is native to the United States, but has spread across the world. It's spiky egg-shaped pods open to expel scores of seeds.

Jimson Weed was frequently used as a highly effective treatment for asthma, and by native peoples as a quasi-anesthetic, as well as for spiritual practices. Jimson is very powerful and unpleasant hallucinogen that is very dangerous if taken improperly. Modern medicine continues to explore it's potential in treating a wide range of problematic conditions.

Jimson Weed seeds I have collected

Another seemingly obvious source of seeds to save would be the unharvested pumpkins. However, because my Connecticut Field Pumpkins grew alongside two other varieties of squash, I cannot be sure that they did not cross-pollinate. In other words, I cannot be sure that the squash did not interbreed and that these are true Connecticut Field Pumpkin seeds.

 In preparing to remove the rotten pumpkins and throw them away, I discovered several Red-backed salamanders living underneath! I decided to leave the pumpkins in place for the time being, as the salamanders are a very welcome addition to the garden. Not only are they neat to see, but they are native to Maryland and will help to eat garden pests. The above picture shows the lead-backed variant.

Here is better picture that someone else took, showing the red-backed variant, which I also found in the garden, but did not snap a picture.