Historical society unveils Colonial-era garden

Wilton Historical Society formally unveiled its Colonial-style herb garden over white wine and the evocative scent of lavender last Thursday, July 17. The event not only showcased the historically accurate 18th Century garden itself, but also celebrated the dedication and gardening prowess of the master gardeners affiliated with the Fairfield County Agricultural Extension Center, and their interns, who recently completed the project.

According to the society’s Executive Director Leslie Nolan, the group proposed to refurbish the garden beside the Betts House just two weeks after she assumed her position in May 2012.

“The master gardeners did a masterful job!” Mrs. Nolan said. “They were here Saturday after Saturday after Saturday, sweating and working.”

The conceptual seed of the venture was planted by Carol Russell in 2002 when a house tour and flower show called “From Colonial to Castle” called for a stop at the historic Betts House and an eventual renovation of the property’s garden.

Upon digging out the existing shrubbery, gardeners discovered a series of brick ovals and the vestiges of parsley and chives. Mrs. Russell speculates that this herbaceous ruin might be attributed to Mr. Blackmar, the former owner of the property in the 1970s. This discovery led the team to the decision that the garden should be planted with herbs.

Although the project was certainly difficult, the master gardeners attest that their experience was ultimately fruitful.

“You’re talking to gardeners here… we like weeding, we like pruning,” says Diana Abshire.

“I liked the history part of it, learning about the plants’ usages in colonial times,” added Rosemary Volpe, also a master gardener.

The finished garden is the product of hours of research, as a large component of the process was determining which plants would have been used in the 1740s.

Master gardeners referenced sources such as Thomas Jefferson’s diary, for example, due to the extensive records that he kept of his farm and garden.

Other master gardeners who spearheaded the endeavor include Esther Johnson, Jackie Algon and Tom McGregor.

Mr. McGregor, of the UConn Cooperative Extension Service, led guided tours of the garden, detailing the historical significance and practical qualities of each plant at Thursday’s event.

“We put certain plants together to tell a story,” Mr. McGregor told onlookers at the Betts House Thursday.

For example, comfrey and foxglove, two remarkably similar looking plants that were used to treat indigestion and heart conditions respectively, were planted side by side to illustrate the ease with which an 18th Century apothecary could confuse the two herbs.

While the garden is currently maintained by local master gardeners and the historical society, it is unclear who will take on its upkeep in the future. The society and gardeners encourage interested parties to volunteer their time to maintain the Betts House colonial garden. To get involved, call 203-762-7657.