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, March 26, 2013

Snow and Seedlings

It is formally spring this week, but the weather outside doesn't seem to have heard! We had one of the heaviest snowfalls of the year yesterday, covering the garden a thick, fluffy layer of white. I hope that won't hurt the seeds I planted last week, but if it does I will just replant. I am hoping this is the end of cold!

White it has been snowing outside, seedlings inside are coming along!

 Fenugreek (in the foreground) was the first to germinate and is doing the best. I tried growing fenugreek last year, but it did not work out. I am hoping that this year I will have some better luck. I think that I just have to work a little harder to give them the right conditions of light, soil, and moisture in the garden.

Fenugreek has been under cultivation for thousands of years and no one is really certain of when or where it originated. It probably comes from the Middle East, but is found throughout the ancient world. While its popularity has waned in recent times, fenugreek is a versatile plant, useful as an herb, spice, vegetable, and medicine. It remains popular in Indian and other Asian cuisines. It has been used in ancient times, the 19th century, and even today as a supplement to increase lactation in nursing women.

All five varieties of tomato are coming along. Some are bigger than others, but I think I will have some plants of each type to put in the garden in May. Friends are clamoring for some tasty and unusual tomatoes, so I am hoping that the tomato crop won't meet with disaster like last year! There is nothing like a fresh garden tomato right off the vine!

Valerian is just beginning to poke its head above ground. It's too soon to tell how well it will do, but I am hoping that, like fenugreek, I will have more success with it this year.

Also like fenugreek, Valerian is an ancient medicinal plant. As I have written before, Valerian has been used to promote relaxation and relieve insomnia and anxiety for more than two thousand years. Both Hippocrates and Galen specifically mention Valerian in their writings.

 I'll be out in the garden later this week. It's time to plant more seeds in the garden. Hopefully I will see some lettuce germinating while I am out there!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Late Winter Seeds

Spring is on our doorsteps, and accordingly, I have begun sowing some of the first seeds in the garden. With snow falling on the ground yesterday afternoon, it might seem as though I am a bit early, but it's recommended that some early spring crops be sown a few weeks before the last frost. For example, the University of Maryland Extension Office recommends beginning to plant spinach as early as March 10, and leaf lettuce on March 15.

Before putting seeds in the ground though, the soil had to be turned over. I think that nothing works better than a plain old shovel.

I had some help from Kady, a Museum Studies student at nearby Shepherd University. Kady was visiting us last week to fulfill her museum practicum requirement. Helping in the garden was one of the many hands-on experiences we tried to show her during her visit.

I have put in six varieties of heirloom leaf lettuce. I have stayed away from head lettuce, both because I am not as much of a fan and because it was difficult to find an appropriate variety to the 1860s. The now ubiquitous and tasteless iceberg lettuce just wasn't around. As they take shape, I might talk more about the varieties I did select.

This is the first year for spinach in the garden. I am a big fan of the nutritious green leaf, so I hope that come spring we will have a bountiful harvest for salads and cooking. 

Inside, some of the first seedlings are emerging and looking healthy! This picture is already a few days old, but you can see some fenugreek sprouting. I hope that will have a few more seedlings to show you next week!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Seed-Starting Time Again.

I did not post this blog yesterday because I was away in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It was my great privilege to take a private tour of their current exhibit, "The Civil War and American Art," with the museum's senior curator of painting and sculpture, Eleanor Jones Harvey. Because I had been involved with our recent exhibit, "Bringing the Story of War to Our Doorsteps," based around "The Dead of Antietam" photography of Alexander Gardner, I was asked to meet Dr. Harvey and take an intimate look at their wonderful exhibit at the Smithsonian. If you have an opportunity, please do stop in at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to see their Civil War exhibit. It is much more than just a collection of Civil War paintings; rather, it takes a wider view of art during the period and how the war impacted the creation and reception of artwork.

Outside of stuffy museum galleries, it really feels like spring! As temperatures rise and the Sun stays out longer, people's spirits seem brighter and the garden is beginning to wake up. I enjoyed the wonderful weather over the weekend and got out in the garden to finish preparing it for some new tenants. On some of the perennial plants, I cut back the last of the winter die-off and pruned for fresh spring growth.

I also started planting my first indoor seedlings on Saturday. Last year I started some seeds a few weeks earlier, but I am growing some different plants this season, so it wasn't quite as important to start so early.

On this first round, I sowed five varieties of tomatoes, each of which will look a little different than your modern kitchen-variety tomato if and when they come to fruit this summer. One unusual variety, the poma amoris minora lutea or lesser yellow love apple, is a small variety of yellow tomato that has been cultivated since at least the 16th century.

I have also sown six different medicinal plants, none of which I have successfully grown in the garden before. Some of them may be a bit too tricky and temperamental to survive in the Pry Garden, but I am going to give everything a chance and hope for the best.

One plant that I am particularly unsure about is the Blue Flag Iris. This was a popular medicinal plant during the Civil War, and it was listed on numerous drug supply tables by the Confederate States Medical Department. I have never tried to grow an iris from seed before, so I am curious whether it will work out. I worry about growing it in the garden because the Blue Flag Iris likes a very wet environment, which will be difficult to provide.

I have planted each in small biodegradable pots that will make it easier to transplant seedlings into the garden in the spring. I used these last year on just a few plants with great success. Even though they are biodegradable, I don't just plant the whole pot in the ground; I usually tear off the sides and throw those in the compost because they don't really break down that quickly.

My indoor growing set up is similar to last year. I have a small table set up near a window. I don't really get enough light through that window though, so I have added two desk lamps with compact florescent bulbs. I keep my home fairly warm and I use a spray bottle to make sure the little pots stay moist, but not too wet. I am hoping that many of these seeds will germinate into healthy plants that will live well in the Pry Garden.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New Compost Bins

I try to update this blog every Tuesday evening, but we were fairly busy at the museum yesterday, preparing and hosting our second happy hour at Brewer's Alley to premiere our latest brew in the Civil War Beer Series: First Draught. The event was great time and well-attended, and the beer is delicious! It's a tasty twist on Belgian dubbel, so give it a try!

Read About the Event!

Read about the Civil War Beer Series!

I mentioned last week that that we had the Boys Scouts from Troops 279 and 277 at the Pry House. They were taking the opportunity to practice some basic scout skills on a winter camp out, but also pitched in for the museum, helping to get some work done in the garden. One thing they did, was to convert some simple trashcans into compost bins.

I spent some time looking online for some simple, inexpensive, and fool-proof methods of doing compost. Many different people all recommended this method. It simply requires taking a basic plastic trashcan with a secure lid, and drilling the sides, bottom, and lid with a number of holes using a power drill.

These are supposed to make great containers for compost. They make it easier to regulate heat and moisture while keeping most animals out. The many holes promote air circulation, which is crucial to getting the compost to break down. Putting it up on simple cinder blocks further improves circulation.

Like most compost techniques, I add alternating layers of "green" matter - like weeds, grass clippings, green leafy trimmings, and kitchen scraps - with brown matter - like straw, leaves, sawdust, or even paper; really anything that seems woody. Purported experts all have have their own notions of the the "correct" ratio of brown to green. I a trying about half and half.

Three things in particular attracted me to the trashcan technique:

- It doesn't require a large amount of compost material to make it work quickly, unlike open-air piles
- It is cheaper than buying purpose-made compost boxes
- These round cans with firm lids can be easily turned over and rolled around as a simple way to turn the compost periodically.

I am hoping it works out! I will keep you posted!