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Guide to the gardens at Greenfield Village's historic homes

April 12, 2011 Think THF

Spring has finally arrived at Greenfield Village!

While this gives us many causes for celebration – including the Village’s re-opening – one of my favorite elements of the season is watching the gardens in our historic homes grow.

We have a wide variety of crops that grow in many different styles of gardens throughout Greenfield Village – and of course, all are cultivated according to that particular home’s geographic location and time period.

Let’s take a walk through the gardens!

Daggett Garden (built in 1754 in Andover, Connecticut)
At Daggett, we show a very traditional way to garden. The word garden means “to guard in”; just as you guard something in with a fence, you guarded in your crops. In crowded Europeans cities, where the American colonists came from, you’d see them growing their crops in tiers and boxed beds because the cities were crowded and you had to maximize the amount of crops you got from each square foot of gardening.

This is another location with raised beds, which were just rebuilt last year; we grow a variety of vegetables, herbs, flowers and even concord grapes – and just look at how big the cabbages we grow can get!

Susquehanna Plantation (built circa 1835 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland)
At this home’s original location, tobacco was the crop that the enslaved African Americans would have tended and grown. Growing tobacco was back-breaking work. Henry and Elizabeth Carroll enjoyed a very prosperous life from selling this tobacco; in 1860 alone, Carroll sold over 10,000 tons of the crop. Today, you can still see the same variety of tobacco grown in the fields surrounding the plantation, although it doesn’t grow quite as well here in the North.

We start the plants early in what’s called a cold frame because the growing season for tobacco  is quite long – more than 140 days. In the 19th century, tobacco plants were started in protected seed beds, and then transplanted into hills in the fields. It was not uncommon to plant lettuce along with the tobacco seeds in the seed beds to act as a buffer, and to draw leaf-mulching insects away. Notice how the tobacco is being grown here, in a mound almost three feet high; to do this, you stick your foot in the mound, hoe up the soil up to your knee, pull out your foot, and then put the plant into the ground with your whole fist. From there, you have to keep mounding up and up.

When the time is right, the entire top of the plant is pinched off to prevent it from going to seed and ending its growing cycle too soon.  This will cause the plant to try and replace its top with a lot of small shoots called suckers, so this is when the process of “suckering” begins: taking off the smaller leaves so that only a few leaves (about 12-14) will get really big instead.

With open pollinated heirloom varieties, such as we use, you always save the seed and grow your crops again next year – this way, you maintain an original variety of the plant, and as a bonus, you don’t have to buy new seeds each year!

Mattox Garden (built about 1880 in Bryan County, Georgia)
Here, we grow okra – specifically, Georgia Jade okra, an heirloom variety that actually grows very well here in Michigan. You’d be surprised by the abundance of okra you can get, even in such a contrasting growing location.

To do this, we work a good mulch right into the beds, which helps the water stays within the bed itself; it doesn’t run off and evaporate as much as it does when you have row crops.

We also grow everything from yellow bantam corn, radishes, Muscadine and Scuppernong grapes, tomatoes and collard, mustard and turnip greens. With corn, tomatoes and okra, you can mix that with a rice dish, throw in a ham hock – and you have yourself all different kinds of gumbos and jambalayas. That was very typical Southern cuisine.

(For another example of a classic Southern dish, watch our video here on how to make Hoppin’ John, from our cooking demonstrations during Celebrate Black History! in Henry Ford Museum.)

Firestone Farm (built in 1828 in Columbiana, Ohio)
Although the Firestone home was built in 1828, we show life as it was lived at this farm in the 1880s – and that means vegetables planted in neat rows in the kitchen garden.

Most of our crops are directly sown and include a number of different pole and bush bean varieties. Dry beans were an important part of the winter stores as they would keep and could be used in a number of ways.

We also have quite an assortment of fruit trees at Firestone Farm, with the most important being the apples that grow both in our small orchard and in the back yard of the farmhouse.  Some types of apples kept all the way into the spring months, and others were dried, made into apple sauce, and apple butter.  Cider is also really important, but not the sweet kind we all drink in the fall.

We also grow citron melons at Firestone Farm; these look like little watermelons but are white inside – when you candy these (by cooking the rinds in a sugar syrup), you can put these into stone breads and a lot of holiday baked goods.

Dr. Howard’s Medicinal Garden (built about 1840 in Tekonsha, Michigan)
When we re-opened this building to visitors, we did a lot of research – which was easy to do, as there were a lot of original papers from Dr. Howard himself and even barrels and medicines that he used. He would pay young people to go out into the woods, pick herbs and bring them back to him to use in his medicines.

The plants we grow there are the plants that we have documented that Dr. Howard grew and picked from the woods out in what is now known as Tekonsha, Michigan (in the extreme southwest corner of Michigan, about 10 miles south of Marshall, Michigan).

Ford Home (built in 1861 in Springwells Township, Michigan)
As with several of our gardens, we have wonderful concord grapes that we grow at Henry Ford’s birthplace, alongside parsnips, brandywine and yellow pear tomatoes and  different varieties of squash.

Several of these older and almost forgotten varieties of crops are starting to become popular again, and it always makes me feel good when I go to my local grocery store and see something that we grow at the Ford Home, like Hubbard Squash. I have a feeling someday those pear tomatoes will be in your Kroger store because they are just so good.

Clara Ford’s Garden of the Leavened Heart (built in 1929 in Greenfield Village)
While the gardens at our historic homes are tended by our trained historic presenters, we also have several other gardens that are tended by our Village Herbal Associates, a very strong group of volunteers that cultivate the Dr. Howard Garden, Clara Ford’s Garden of the Leavened Heart and the Burbank Production Garden; they then sell their products at the Farmer’s Market that we have each fall in Greenfield Village.

Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, was instrumental in putting this particular garden together. She didn’t have much to do with all of Greenfield Village, but Clara had that garden. It has Victorian pathways and very pretty shapes – in fact, if you look closely, you can see four arrows and four hearts; when you put them together, they make a complete circle that you can walk around.

So the next time you visit, make sure to take a few moments to look at the many varied gardens growing throughout Greenfield Village – what other elements have you noticed about each home’s garden? What similarities do you see with today’s gardening practices? What kinds of differences do you see?

gardening, gardens

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