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!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

January Snow

We had some snowy weather here at the Pry House during the end of last week. It made for an attractive view of the garden. It won't be long now before the garden is alive again with fresh green leaves. The weather is so lovely today and the birds are out and singing. It's hard to believe that it was so bitter cold here only a few days ago!

I thought I would post a few pictures from the recent snow, as well as some pictures I took after the Christmas snow last month.

From January:

From December:

Deer Tracks in the Garden

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Anti-Bacterial Herbs

I was shopping at the supermarket recently and purchased a disinfecting multi-surface cleaner made by Seventh Generation, a company that sells household cleaners and other products which are supposed to "help protect human health and the environment." The active ingredients in green alternative products like this one are very often plant-based. This particular cleaner lists "Thymol," a component of thyme oil, as its active disinfectant agent.

Seeing thyme oil listed on the bottle as an important ingredient of this very modern product reminds me of a continuity from 19th century household practices and today. A century and a half ago, thyme was a very popular cooking herb, just as it is today, but it also had medicinal and other household uses.

Common Thyme and the Chemical Structure of Thymol
In the 19th century, thyme was sometimes used in home medicine when washing wounds, a practice that could help prevent infection and sepsis. Today we understand that this is because compounds in thyme oil have anti-microbial properties and can kill infection-causing microorganisms. Civil War Era Americans did not understand the importance of bacteria and germ theory, but they did recognize strong, fragrant herbs like thyme as promoting a healthful influence.

Thyme was not the only common garden herb that was used this way. Savory was also utilized in washing wounds. Savory seems to often be a forgotten herb in today's cooking, but it was quite popular among Victorian Americans and imparts a very tasty Italian herb flavor to food.
Winter Savory

Common Sage
Sage was even more frequently used as a home remedy in washing or dressing dressing wounds. Its anti-microbial properties may contribute to its traditional role as an ingredient in pork sausage, further helping to prevent spoilage.

Herbs weren't just used in cleaning wounds, but also in everyday cleaning around the household. Fragrant herbs like thyme, sage, rosemary, and lavender were a common ingredient in cleaning mixtures for washing floors, tables, and other surfaces in the home, not merely because they smell quite nice, but because they were believed to help promote a clean and healthy atmosphere.

A Ward of Armory Square Hospital, Washington, DC in 1865

General hospitals during the Civil War also made use of herbal cleaning supplies for just the same reasons. We can appreciate today that those practices may have helped to reduce the spread of disease and infection among sick and wounded soldiers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fruits and Vegetables Year-Round

It's mid-January, but that's no reason why I can't eat all the fresh fruits and vegetables I want. Nothing is growing outside, but I need only drive to the supermarket to find an array of produce harvested from around the world and shipped right here. I can eat fresh strawberries, lettuce, and watermelon all year long, (even if they do taste better at the local farm stand).

In the 1860s, Americans didn't have that luxury which we take for granted on a daily basis. Diets were governed by changing seasons and the coming and going of different fruits and vegetables. Today many advocate for seasonal and local eating, but before rapid transportation and refrigeration people it was a necessity rather than a choice.

Eating seasonally and local is a picnic in July, but in winter it becomes much more difficult. At this time of year our ancestors did not go hungry; they turned to a preserved and stored food to keep a healthy, balanced, and tasty diet. A variety of food preservation practices were critical to virtually every American household until recent history. Through cellaring, salting, sugaring, and canning, Victorian Americans could enjoy the fruits of their farms and gardens during the whole year.

Pry House Root Cellar

The simplest method of keeping produce was usually cellaring. Visitors to the Pry House frequently ask about the stone structure partially embedded in the hillside. It was the Pry Family's root cellar, where hearty fruits and vegetables were stored to keep them dry and cool, but not frozen, until they were ready to be eaten. Root vegetables like turnips, carrots, and potatoes, were pulled and cleaned before being put into bins in the root cellar. Pumpkins and other winter squash kept all season in the root cellar if dry and cool. Apples, and even cabbages, will also keep there if properly stored. The climate of these underground cellars works very much like the crisper drawer of modern refrigerators.

Some produce was dried for keeping. Beans and peas were left to dry on the vine, then hulled and spread out to dry completely before being stored. Fleshy fruit was also often dried. Pieces of sliced fruit could be spread out in a warm oven to dry, sun-dried, or threaded and hung to dry.

Salting and sugaring were also common ways to save vegetables and fruits. Roots, string beans, and stocky, green vegetables could be kept in heavy brine solutions. A wide assortment of fruit can be cooked and stored in sugar. More commonly, fruit can be made into jellies and jams. Enough sugar or salt will keep virtually anything from spoiling. It will also change the food's flavor, but sometime's that's a good thing!

Pickling, a process of marinating and storing produce in a vinegar solution, was yet another popular means of preservation. Pickling was common not only for cucumbers and other vegetables, but many kinds of fruit too. While cucumbers are usually pickled with salt and spices, fruits like peaches and melons could also be pickled with sugar to make a sweet pickle. It was also common to make fruit vinegars, a kind of  drink concentrate, by steeping fruit in vinegar and adding sugar.

Bottled pickles found on the 1856 wreck of the Steamboat Arabia
(they are still edible)

Canning meat, fruit, and vegetables began in the first decade of the 19th century. It was initially a strictly industrial process for government use and commercial sale.  In the 1850s technology improved and "canning" in individual glass jars quickly became a staple of the domestic kitchen. In 1858 the iconic Mason jar was introduced, using a rubber gasket to seal. The disposable round metal lids used in canning to day were not introduced by Kerr until 1915. The great weakness of home canning is that it is not suited to non-acidic fruits and vegetables. Without the acid of foods like tomatoes, the hot water bath of the canning process is not sufficient to kill certain microorganisms which can cause botulism, an often lethal form of food-poisoning.

Originally Mason jars were aqua blue with gray, zinc lids

All of these processes for preserving food interest me because we now know that they work by excluding bacteria and microorganisms which can spoil food, but all of these methods were developed in times before people understood germ theory. People of the past simply understood that somehow the correct application of heat, salt, sugar, vinegar, etc. would keep food safe to eat for extending periods of time.

At the Pry House we don't actually go through the work of putting up the produce from the garden. The garden is small and only there as a teaching tool. Thinking about how the Pry family and their domestic help would have saved food from their gardens and orchards makes us appreciate how much work went into a routine diet in the 19th century.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Stratifying Seeds (I Hope)

I took a break from the blog last week because it was New Year's, and in the wake of the Christmas holiday there was nothing much to talk about. I hope that most were able to enjoy a little time off with friends and family.

We are in the heart of winter now, but it's still time for me to begin the preparations for new plants in the spring. I wrote in previous posts that in the fall I collected some seeds from the wild and from plants in the garden. Many of those seeds have to be properly prepared if I am going to sow them for growing this year.

Separating milkweed seeds from the fluff

When we buy packets of seeds from the store or online, they are usually properly prepared and ready to be planted right away. However, the seeds of many plants, especially perennials, have to go through a winter's cold before they are willing to germinate in the spring. This is a protective measure so that seeds do not drop in the fall and begin to sprout, only to be killed by freezing temperatures.

Because I collected these seeds rather than leaving them in the dirt outside, I will need to give them a simulated winter inside before I can use them in the spring. This process is called stratification. this is something I have never tried before and I am hoping that it works, giving me productive seeds to start a little later this year.

Milkweed seeds ready for a cold treatment

To stratify the seeds, I needed some kind of medium to hold them during the process. Many experts have recommended a variety of options including vermiculite, perlite, and sand. I have chosen fine peat moss, made from decomposed sphagnum. I purchased it from a garden store, so it is sterile, meaning that it should be free from diseases and unwanted seeds from weeds.

Peat Moss

I took a bit of peat moss from the sealed packaging and added some water in a bowl. I then nestled the seeds in the dampened moss. Dampening the moss is supposed to allow the seeds to absorb some moisture, helping prepare them for eventual germination.

I put each bunch of seeds into small plastic resealable bags. After a few days at room temperature to encourage the seeds to take up some moisture, I put those bags in the refrigerator. I chose the bottom drawer of the refrigerator because that tends to be the coldest place without freezing.

I am currently stratifying for different species: Common Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Jimson Weed, and Common Mullein. Stratification times can vary widely for different types of seeds, but for these particular species I think that about a month will be enough time in the cooler. 

I am very hopeful that this process will yield positive results come spring. If it does not work out though, it was at least an interesting learning experience.