Dr. Susan W. Knowles, Digital Humanities Research Fellow, Center for Historic Preservation
Even with torrential rains for three days straight, the twentieth annual conference on restoring southern gardens and landscapes at Old Salem Museums & Gardens provided a delightful cornucopia of learning and tasting. “Learning from the Past, Planting for the Future” featured scholarly sessions based, in many instances, on historic documents or objects, as well as presentations with practical tips for gardening, using garden produce, and designing landscapes in our region today. One particular strength of this year’s conference was the programming related to African American history and culture.
One of the gardens at Old Salem.
Ira Wallace, one of the owners of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, kicked off the conference on Thursday afternoon with a talk on the rich cultural context that can be uncovered through the activity of seed-swapping. Family stories, and invaluable first-person accounts of what grows well where and under what circumstances, are often revealed by seed-savers when conveying seeds. Farmers and gardeners have historically saved seeds for use the following season–and history records that some seeds were exported from the New World to the Old and that other seeds, as well as tubers and bulbs, came into the New World through European, African, and Caribbean auspices. Wallace also gave an overview of the contemporary revival of seed-saving initiated by back-to-the-earthers beginning in about 1975.
A blogger for Mother Earth News and other publications, Wallace makes it her duty to meet the public as often as she can take time away from working on the sixty-acre organic farm she helped found at the Acorn Community in central Virginia. One of the highlights of her year is the Heritage Harvest Festival, which she co-organizes annually at Monticello. Wallace’s book titled The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast (2013) contains many jewels of wisdom that can only be gleaned from someone who has devoted years to hoeing the rows.
A garden at Old Salem planted using diagonal rows, following the plans of Philip Christian Reuter.
Eric Jackson and Ellen McCullough, gardeners who plan, till, plant, and maintain the vegetable, herb, and flower gardens of Old Salem, echoed Wallace on the value of “seeds with stories” as a way to connect people, not only with each other, but also with their own history and heritage. Much of the plant inventory at Old Salem is based upon archival records of seeds and plants in the research collections at MESDA (Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts), which is located just at the edge of the historic district. The gardens Jackson and McCullough oversee interpret the period from 1766 to 1850, by which time modern cultivation methods had started to take hold and commercial seeds had begun to be widely available for purchase. An advertisement from the Old Salem print shop proprietor and “seed seller” John C. Blum, announced that he had seeds available for purchase from the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.
Reuter garden design sign, Old Salem.
Fortunately, the rain broke long enough for us to walk through a garden whose layout and plantings are based on a drawing created by Moravian surveyor Philip Christian Reuter in the 1760s. The next morning, Johanna Metzgar Brown, director of collections and curator of Moravian decorative arts at Old Salem, used a Reuter map, as well as early drawings, prints, and paintings by artists and residents of Old Salem, to illustrate the development of land use and industry there.
Friday afternoon’s session was held in the historic St. Philips African Moravian Church, a handsome brick building dating from 1861. We sat in the same pews from which members of the congregation heard Federal chaplain Seth Clark read a proclamation declaring them free persons on May 21, 1865, according to a Civil War Trails marker outside the building.
The church was erected on the same lot as the “Strangers’ Graveyard,” a plot of land set aside at the town’s margins for non-Moravian burials. By 1816, this graveyard, whose earliest burials date from 1775, was also serving Moravians of African descent—not exactly “strangers,” but the cemetery reflects the segregated nature of pre-Civil War society. The graveyard was discontinued for burials in 1859. Historical archaeology during the 1990s uncovered gravestones under the brick church building, some of which can be seen through viewing panels in the floor of an innovative archaeology gallery that has been creatively inserted into an alcove within the church building. Other tombstones can be seen at the interpretive center next door, which is a reconstruction of the original African Moravian Log Church founded in 1823.
St. Philips African Moravian Church, Old Salem.
Cheryl Harry, director of African American programming at Old Salem, introduced speaker Michael Twitty, an expert in African foodways and the gardens of enslaved persons. He blogs at Afroculinaria.com. Twitty wove historical threads together, including the fact that the African continent was once home to two thousand indigenous plants, and he also stressed the multiple uses that many food plants afforded subsistence gardeners. And, he positioned African American cuisine as a major source of the core principles of the currently fashionable “slow food” movement. Further underscoring this fascinating blend of cultures, at the session break Harry provided a taste of “Queen Charlotte’s Cake” from a recipe in Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (1866). Russell, who was a free woman of color born in Tennessee, may have chosen to include the cake because the wife of Britain’s King George III was rumored to have a trace of African ancestry.
The planned dinner on the grounds at St. Philips Church had to be relocated because, after two days of pelting downpours, the “ground” was saturated. But Twitty’s presentation stayed with us as we sampled the feast prepared by members of the local African American community. We enjoyed delicate cow peas, tender collard greens, and sliced sweet potatoes, whose botanical lineage can be traced to the African continent.
One of the gardens at Old Salem.
Saturday’s session included a presentation by garden designer Jane Baber White on the restoration of the Lynchburg, Virginia, garden of Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer. The Anne Spencer House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, after which White recruited the Hillside Garden club, a group of white women, to aid in the garden restoration. These women, most of whom were unfamiliar with Spencer’s writings, came to know her through her garden. Today, the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum, restored by many hands, including the Garden Conservancy, demonstrates how this creative woman found inspiration and solace in the luxuriant small garden she nurtured while living in a small southern city during the “Jim Crow” era.
The conference drew a wide range of participants–museum curators, archivists, landscape managers at historic sites, historians, educators, and home gardeners–and its lessons were many. Saturday’s Cobblestone Farmers Market featured an array of local growers whose tables, set out on a picturesque cobblestone street at Old Salem, were piled with heirloom fruits and vegetables. Buying and tasting a variety of old-fashioned root vegetables and recognizing that our climate also nurtures ingredients more commonly associated with Asian cuisine, such as Shitake mushrooms, Thai sweet peppers, and fresh baby ginger, reinforced one of the conference’s themes: seeking the widest possible diversity in what we grow and consume in order to honor and preserve our lineage of global edibles.