“’Grandmother’s Garden’ suggests a long-ago era when home gardens primarily fed families,” writes County Extension Agent Sallie Lee of the Birmingham Historical Society’s c. 1900 vintage garden at Duncan House on the grounds of Sloss Furnaces.
“Home gardens provided fresh veggies and herbs used for cooking and medicine. Most families, regardless of their financial status, had a few ornamental plants: ‘porch plants’ in pots and cherished roses, peonies or hollyhocks that made their home a welcoming place.”
Lee, a home horticulture and environmental specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service who also serves on the board of the Historical Society, planned and implemented the garden behind the BHS headquarters in the 1905 Duncan House.
“While definitions vary, an heirloom plant is generally considered to be a variety of flowering plant or vegetable that is at least 50 years old, is not commercially grown, and is ‘open-pollinated,’ which means it can be grown from seed into new plants that look exactly like the parent plant,” Lee explains. “Most heirlooms are time-tested, hardy, easy to grow, and often disease-resistant. Native Alabama heirlooms are especially well adapted to our growing conditions.”
Lee cites a number of reasons for growing heirloom plants:
–better taste than commercial hybrids
–require less chemical sprays
–help sustain traditional organic gardening practices
–help feed pollinators such as bees, butterflies, bats and beneficial beetles
Among heirloom varieties being cultivated at Duncan House are Lavender Lassie, Duchesse de Brabant, and Prosperity roses, perennial irises, lilies, and peonies, annual black-eyed Susans, Johnny jump-ups and pinks, and traditional kitchen and medicinal herbs including basils, mints, bee balm, bunet, and comfrey. Black Krim and Red Cabash tomatoes thrive along with okra, watermelons, pole beans, squash, collards and butter beans in the vegetable beds, with Brown Turkey, Celeste, and Lemon figs as fruit providers.
The annual garden schedule includes attention to the basics: soil testing, fertilizing, pest and weed control, and watering, all relying on traditional methods that would have been employed by turn-of-the-century gardeners. Organic fertilizers used are well-composted horse and chicken manure as well as composted yard and kitchen scraps. Companion planting of vegetables and herbs discourages harmful insects. Generous use of mulch reduces irrigation needs to twice weekly early morning as supplement to natural rainfall.
Sallie Lee offers a “one hand reminder” for planting heirlooms:
Thumb-know your soil. Soil testing kits are available from the Cooperative Extension Service offices at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
Index finger-are you “pointing to” an area of sun, shade, or a combination of the two?
Middle finger-water is critical to plant health, and it’s important to understand the individual water requirements of various plants
Ring finger-adequate drainage is as important as adequate water
Pinky finger-considering light, water and drainage conditions guides the gardener in selecting the right plants for the right places
For more information on planting an heirloom garden, including an extensive list of the most common vegetables, ornamental annuals, flowering perennials, shrubs and trees and traditional medicinal herbs grown by gardeners in rural Alabama in the early 20th century contact the County Extension Service at 205-879-6964 or visit their offices on the second floor Birmingham Botanical Gardens and online at www.aces.edu.
Weld thanks the Birmingham Historical Society and the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service for permission to reprint from their full color brochure on the Duncan House garden, available at no charge from BHS and ACES.