This week we visit the Shelburne Museum in Burlington, Vermont.
Shelburne Museum is an art and Americana museum and is unconventional in
that it is a collection of small museums. It is comprised of 39 historic
buildings, many showcase artifacts and provide a glimpse into life in
18th and 19th century New England. Shelburne Museum encompasses forty
acres of beautiful grounds interspersed with a variety of gardens and
marvelous landscaping. This is an excellent location to discuss the
principle of naturalism, or how to work with "mother nature." Often
gardening success to early settlers meant the difference between life
and death, thus plant selection was important. If plants worked during
pioneers days, they should work today.
Rick Peters is the Head of Grounds and Gardens and guides Dr. Rick and
us through this truly remarkable Museum. Rick shows us plants early
settlers selected because of beauty and function. Naturalism is the
concept that everything must have a purpose, a function; the pioneers
adhered to this philosophy. These people settled the land, thus cleared
the land. They then planted and grew their own crops, success meant
feeding ones self. This area has a tough climate, the settlers had to
survive the winter, needing food and other essentials year round. Flax
is one example, it is pretty but important. Flax was used to produce a
natural fiber, linen, which was used to make clothing. Additionally, the
settlers planted a combination of corn, beans and pumpkins or squash.
This is an example of the "three sisters" approach. The corn produces a
stalk that the beans grow up, the squash underneath shades the ground,
keeping it cooler and helps in controlling weeds and the beans add
Nitrogen. Crops needed to be tough to survive cool, wet summers. As
well, the food needed to be preserved, dried and stored for use in
winter months. This part of the country has a short growing season and a
long winter so storage and crops that preserve well were very important.
We look at a fairly typical settlers' garden. These folks grew crops
that were relatively easy to grow. These were basic crops - potatoes,
onions, squash, beans. All could be stored for winter. The beans could
be shelled and dried. Onions were picked, dried and hung in bunches.
Carrots and potatoes were easy to store in a basement or root cellar
(which was a hole dug in the ground, then covered).
Crops were not just grown for food. The apothecary garden has a
beautiful perennial border. The plants, however beautiful, were also
used for medicinal purposes. Since modern medicine wasn't available a
lot of early ailments were treated with natural plants. Echinacea or
Purple Cone Flower was used to help boost one's immune system and used
for skin problems, like boils. Some say it's even helpful for treating
Poison Ivy. We note that everyone should pay careful attention to
plants' toxic qualities, there are cases where plants can be fatal.
Tansy is a beautiful plant that also has medicinal qualities. It was
used for skin problems and was reportedly used for hysteria. This is an
example of a plant that can be fatal if too much is used. Comfry looks a
lot like a Peony in terms of leaves, but not in terms of its' flower. It
was used as a ground pultis for skin problems. These plants all need
full sun and well drained soil. It's important to remember that
perennials get bigger, keep that in mind when planting, especially when
planting close to a building, they can overtake an area. Over time they
need to be divided and often need to be moved. Give them room to grow,
give them space, it's important for perennials' success.
The Dyer's Garden contains a group of plants used to dye the natural
fabric of the day - wools, linens, cotton and silk. One plant often
known as Tick Seed, Dyer's Coreopsis, has a nice bright yellow flower,
it was used to make a yellow dye. Garland Chrysanthemum is the only
Chrysanthemum that produces a dye. It is a pale yellow, very clear dye.
A dark Hollyhock has an interesting flower, provides a dark almost black
dye and offers a great contrast to some of the other bright colors.
If looking for a way to make your garden interesting throughout the year
don't just concentrate on the flowers, look at other parts of the plant.
An example is a Rose bush. After the Roses are finished many have
beautiful leaves. One plant has beautiful hips, large seeds pods. They
add interest during the summer, then in the fall they'll turn a ruby red
creating interest throughout the entire season. Consider the whole plant
and its' characteristics during different seasons.
Another garden has a lush perennial border with vibrant colors. This is
the Hat and Fragrance Garden and is comprised of a combination of
perennials that fulfill a variety of purposes. Women wore hats at that
time and many of the plants with bright colors would have been used to
decorate those hats. Some bright flowers could be pinned to the hat
making it attractive when the woman went out. Fragrance was also an
important consideration in determining plant selection, as it is today.
It's comforting to walk through a garden and smell different aromas.
People bend down and touch a plant, the plants provide different scents,
different smells. As well, it's very calming to sit and enjoy the
different scents, to see the different colors and blooms. This
particular garden is beautiful, it has fragrance, color and contrast.
Thyme is very low growing, almost like a ground cover. The little blue
flowers on top give it a fine texture, a dainty look. Chives provide a
good strong flavor for salads, yet additionally are a nice, vertical
element in the landscape. Backing that up is another light blue flower,
Russian Sage or Perovsia. It can be used to make a tea, called Oswego
tea. This area is very well composed, very relaxing. There are no plants
in straight lines or rows, instead there are large masses of plants.
This provides a bold look. It's very informal, very relaxed, a very
natural garden. The early settlers used a lot of annuals. Chamomile is
an example. It is an herb, it has a good look, very fine textured. Next
to it is Flowering Tobacco, an old time plant. The difference between
the two is interesting. Their flowers are similar in color, but the big
leaves against the fine textured leaves provide an interesting contrast.
Spider Flower or Cleome is placed in the back of this garden, it is a
prolific reseeder year after year. Hollyhocks, Alseas, is spiky,
providing a nice combination of texture, color and height. Rick started
low in the front, then moved up to the Hollyhocks, which are the
tallest, in the back. The bright colors of the flowers contrast with the
dark background of the building really showing off the dark wood. That
is an important concept - if using light colored flowers the last thing
one would want is a light colored background. They would tend to compete
or cancel each other out, but a nice, strong colored background and
light colored flowers is a great contrast, providing a beautiful look.
At about the center of the Museum grounds is one of the most beautiful
gardens. It appears more modern than some of the older gardens. Mrs.
Webb had a daughter, Mrs. Bostwick, who was an accomplished painter.
When she passed away the family wanted a memorial for her. In this
garden one is surrounded by the colors of the rainbow, it's a painters
pallet and that was the intent of the garden. Every color is represented
by bold masses. It has lots of color, textures and height. Because stone
walls, Evergreens and Lilac Shrubs surround the garden it is a protected
area. It is a micro climate, so to speak. This is a good idea, it
"pushes the zone." If you live in a colder part of the country,
protecting your garden with walls or with evergreens, allows one to
extend the season a little longer. It may add several weeks in the early
part of the season as well as a couple of weeks later in the season.
Avid gardeners are always trying to adjust and get a little more out of
their plants. Anything that will allow for more enjoyment, a few more
rewards for all the work in the garden, is an added benefit. This garden
has informal plantings, in nice, large masses, combined with a strong
formal hardscape (paths, edging, etc.), all in a circular pattern
providing a nice combination of formal and informal. With a sculpture in
the middle, then the plantings around it, the sculpture is accented and
makes a picture as a painter would in a painting. It is a beautiful area.
One of the advantages of having a perennial garden in the northern
climates is the cool nights. Even though it is in the middle of summer
the forecast says it could be in the 40's tonight. That is helpful for
bright, intense colors. The plants are able to hold on to some of the
energy gathered during the day. When the temperatures are warm at night,
the plants tend to exhaust themselves, the plants wear themselves out.
In parts of the country where it is hot everyday and hot at night the
plants start to look whipped by the middle of the summer. Everything
here looks fantastic, the colors are vibrant, the plants look healthy.
All of this can be attributed to the cool nights, allowing the plants to
One example of a strong color is Globe Thistle or Echinops. If looking
for a well behaved, decorative, yet strong, rugged plant for a perennial
border consider Globe Thistle. It blooms from mid summer to fall. It is
great fresh but can also be dried. To do this, cut off the flowers, turn
them upside down and let them dry. Another stunning plant, Lobellia has
strong steel blue flowers and makes a strong statement along a border or
walkway. Lobelias are grown for their tubular lipped flowers which
resemble Honeysuckle or even Salvia. This popular and dependable edging
plant grows from 3 to 6 inches. Make sure it has rich soil, regularly
water and it will occasionally self sow if conditions are right. Hostas
are prized for their foliage. In warmer parts of the country the plant
needs shade. In the Northeast this plant does well in full sun. In New
England the flower spikes are tremendous. Hostas are long lived, they
often outlive those that planted them. They like rich soil, plenty of
moisture and adequate fertilizer. Enjoy the spikes, the flowers can
sometimes be fragrant; for a beautiful plant often prized for its'
foliage, the flowers make a beautiful, if unplanned surprise.
Evergreens, especially well manicured, well behaved plants like Alberta
Spruce are great additions to a garden. They add structure, a little
formality, a sense of order to a garden especially if one has an unruly
group of plants.
If looking to take a part of your garden inside during the winter, when
it's really cold, think about taking close-up snapshots of blooms at
their peak. Day Lilies, Purple Cone Flower and others all look fantastic
up close. Photograph them, mount them and they can be placed anywhere
inside, where they can then be enjoyed throughout the year.
Rick has been working at the Brick House and the Museum grounds for 29
years. It has been a wonderful experience. He gets to go to work outside
in a beautiful landscape and work with a talented group of people; he
finds that invigorating. In the morning he walks outside, not into an
office but into his outdoor office. Here he sees the reward of his work,
views how things grow through the whole growing season and can say "we
planted that" or "we changed that" or "we made the garden different." It
has been a rewarding experience and one he has thoroughly enjoyed.
One of the royal members of many gardens are Peonies. Rick has some
truly spectacular Peonies, they bloom once a year but when they do it is
a real show. At the Brick House they have a large array of varieties and
colors. Peonies are relatively simple plants to grow but there are a few
important gardening tips everyone needs to take into consideration.
Sunlight is important, Peonies like full sun. A Peony will grow in a
shaded area but won't succeed nearly as well as when in full sun. Keep
them away from a tree or a large shrub, again the more sun the better.
They're a large plant thus may overwhelm other plants in a border-give
them plenty of room. They will start out, when first planted, small,
with only a few stems, but over the years, over time, they'll spread
out. Remember that when planting, not only for the sake of the Peonies
but for other plants around them. Allow for sunlight to get in and allow
for good air circulation, that too is important. If in a warmer part of
the country where temperatures stay hot it's a good idea to select early
blooming varieties. One variety that fits this description is Festiva
Maxima. It is an early blooming, old timey plant that does well in the
hot days of summer. Rick has that variety here but they also have other
early, mid season and late blooming varieties. They're stunning plants,
a good backdrop plant and the show in the spring is magnificent.
Dr. Rick thanks Rick for showing us Shelburne grounds and Museum. He has
shown us wonderful examples of gardening and working with nature. The
grounds are beautiful, a tribute to the efforts of Rick Peters and all
the others working here. We thank everyone at Shelburne Museum for the
history lesson and for their hospitality.
The Inn at Essex
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