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Garden once meant survival; OSV revisits vintage harvests.

Byline: Bradford L. Miner

STURBRIDGE - Imagine stepping into the backyard to tend the garden, only to find that some things taken for granted are nowhere to be found.

There's no Miracle-Gro cartridge at the end of a hundred-foot hose. There's no Bug-B-Gon spray or vegetable dust. There's no oscillating sprinkler on a timer.

And there's no Paul Rogers on call if needed for sage advice on garden problems.

More troublesome is the realization that if you make a mistake, there's no farm stand five minutes away, no weekend farmers' market on the town common, no produce department at the local supermarket as a fail-safe for crop failure.

In 1830s New England, the kitchen garden wasn't just a hobby, for the vast majority of rural families it was a matter of survival. A well-planned and prolific garden through the summer months and beyond to the fall harvest meant food on the table for the coming winter and spring.

Rebecca Robinson, lead interpreter of household gardens at Old Sturbridge Village, walked through the weed-free garden at the Bixby House this week and talked about lessons passed on from one generation to the next, many of which are still valid today.

In a word, she said, successful gardening is about vigilance.

And by spending a half hour a day in the garden, it can be done 1830s-style without expensive chemicals and fancy gadgets.

In the early 19th century, the average family garden ranged from a quarter of an acre to an acre, and included vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs, perennials and seed plants to ensure future gardens.

While there were seed catalogs during that period, most families would make certain they had seeds from favorite crops with which to start the next year's garden. They would look to the seed catalogs for new vegetables they hadn't grown in the past.

Ms. Robinson said a significant difference in the gardens of then and now was the relative importance of vegetables in the family diet.

"It was all about what a family likes to eat," she said, noting that the Bixby household gave first preference to putting meat on the dining room table. Grains were next in importance and vegetables placed third.

Visitors walking through the kitchen gardens at OSV might not recognize some vegetable varieties.

"Vegetables today are small and cute and juicy," Ms. Robinson observed, drawing the comparison to large, robust root vegetables, peas, beans and squash that when harvested and dried could last for months in a cool dry place in the house, rather than just a few days or weeks in a refrigerator.

She recounted that a large heirloom variety Boston marrow squash harvested in the fall of 2011 was kept until June in the parlor of the Freeman house.

Ms. Robinson said they also grew summer squash, but weren't plagued like some gardeners today with an over-abundance of zucchini.

Methods of preserving fruit and vegetables included drying, pickling, brining, salting and sugaring. Canning technology dates to the early 19th century, and was first available in urban areas, but not widely used in rural villages.

The Prussian blue peas were turning brown on the vine last week, and the majority of the pea crop would be harvested and stored dry, rather than eaten fresh, Ms. Robinson said.

The same is true of the Jacob's cattle bean, the pole bean and soldier bean.

The Bixby garden, unlike many home gardens of today, features row upon row of the heirloom red Wethersfield onion, a variety that was common in New England kitchens a century and a half ago, but is less common today.

Ms. Robinson explained that some of the onions would have been used fresh along with salad greens, while the majority would be stored or sold as a cash crop.

The tomato, a centerpiece in the majority of gardens today, was rare in the early 19th century as most families were unfamiliar with the red fruit.

"Tomatoes were something that most didn't have the time or patience for. They were relatively new and just starting to appear in seed catalogues. They were a relative novelty given what else they had to grow and so most didn't bother," the garden specialist said.

Ms. Robinson said families of the 1830s ensured a successful harvest by spending time every day in picking insects off plants, weeding, thinning and watering.

Some carried water to the garden in large buckets, while others had a shallow well within the fenced confines of the garden from which to draw water.

She noted that an onion "tea" made by chopping up an onion and letting it soak in a gallon of water in the sun for several hours makes a solution that when sprinkled on vegetable plants repels leaf-chewing insects.

One important gardener's lesson from the past, Ms. Robinson said, was doing a thorough garden cleanup after the fall harvest; doing a rough till of the garden to kill burrowing insects over the winter; and planning for the following year's garden by rotating crop locations within the garden.

Ms. Robinson said visitors frequently stop and ask about varieties growing in the Bixby kitchen garden, and how it's maintained in weed and insect-free condition.

"The Bixbys had three daughters, and back then care of the garden was a daily family activity," she said.


CUTLINE: (1) Rebecca Robinson, lead interpreter of household gardens at Old Sturbridge Village, discusses a variety of plants growing in a kitchen garden. (2) Michelle Aghiarian clips savory for an herb pie, with Jerica Shuck holding a basket behind her. They were also clipping parsley and chives. (3) This chipmunk pilfered at least 10 pea pods while being observed in an Old Sturbridge Village garden before stopping to take a break and munch a pea.

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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 15, 2012
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