Introduction to the Great American Garden - Yours!

Barbara Brand
Adams County Master Gardener

Whether native-born or "transplant", we who live in Adams County, Pennsylvania are surrounded by history - historic battlefields, legacy farms, and preserved landscapes meet our eyes every day. Small wonder, then, that many local gardeners are drawn to this heritage, and want to include a little bit of history in their own gardens. If you live in geographic locales bordering the county of Adams, you have your own similar histories.

It is difficult to know how to accomplish this today, with so many questions to ask. How did past residents of this area set up their gardens? What plants did they grow for their kitchens, their home use, their livelihood? Sadly, very little evidence survives. Farmsteads have lost their outbuildings, and "low maintenance" yards have replaced the subsistence gardens and colorful yards of yesteryear.

Recently, there has been growing interest in old-fashioned and native plants to replace the exotic varieties and cultivars that abound in nurseries and catalogs. In addition, traditional and organic gardening methods are popular today among home gardeners. This trend means that now you have many choices for designing your own heritage garden.

Do you have fond memories of your grandmother's garden and want to replicate it in your own? Perhaps your mother gave you cuttings from her favorite plant that you have lovingly nurtured for years. Or, maybe when you moved to a new house you transplanted your favorite shrub. These ties to your past have deep personal meaning, evoking happy times, and reflecting your personal and family heritage.

Local and regional heritage can also be featured in your garden. Two or three fruit trees, or, if you have the space for it, a small orchard could reflect Adams County's agricultural industry. If you live in an older town, you may notice that your lot has a long, thin shape. A hundred years ago, virtually every home in small towns had an herb and vegetable plot, a chicken coop, and a small pasture and stable for the family horse or cow. If you are fortunate, some of these outbuildings still stand, and continue to be useful as tool and storage sheds.

The design and content of a heritage garden provides countless opportunities to experiment and innovate, depending upon the size of your property (not to mention your budget). An English cottage garden is compact and densely planted with a mix of perennials, annuals, herbs and even vegetables. A landscape in the Victorian style features formal mounded beds, broad lawns and exotic plants and trees.

A well-known characteristic of Pennsylvania German gardens is the use of raised beds. This technique gives a neat and tidy appearance, and also provides rich, loose soil in locations where rocks make tilling difficult. Raised beds can be created with rocks, planks, or four-by-fours. Other traditional features of heritage gardens include picket fences, woven stick barriers, and crushed rock or flagstone walkways.

There are many resources available to help design your heritage garden and choose plants. The local library can recommend publications that include Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings by Rudy J. and Joy Putnam Favretti and Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving and Cultural History by William Woys Weaver.

Old photographs also offer inspiration for recreating a historic garden, and there are old county images preserved at the Adams County Historical Society, or reproduced in the series Adams County Pictorial History published by the Gettysburg Times.

Sources on the Internet include

Use your favorate search engine to look for historic gardens, heirloom plants, native plants or heritage gardens. Information about historic gardens that you can visit such as Winterthur, Ladew Topiary Gardens, Mount Vernon, and Colonial Williamsburg can also be fount on the Internet.

Plant selection for heritage gardens is much easier today. Many nurseries and catalogs now offer "heirloom" flowers and vegetable as well as tree and shrubs that are native to our region. Seed sharing has become a very popular way to spread the use of traditional plants. Two historic sites that are well-known sources for seeds are the Heirloom Seed Project at Landis Valley Museum, Lancaster County and the Thomas Jefferson center for Historic Plants in Virginia.

If heritage gardening appeals to you, take a closer look at the unique historical and agricultural environment of the area surrounding you and consider the satisfaction and pleasure to be found in recreating a little bit of history in your garden.

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