First, start here (yeah, I’m now a columnist at Southern Maryland NewsNet! w00t) to read about the very interesting history of Sotterley‘s gardens and Garden Guild (the gardens had to be saved from the brink, and there are some very old plants there). And now, a somewhat rambling post about a bunch of stuff I couldn’t fit into that article…
I’ve lived near the gardens for a while now, and there were lots of questions I had. When did it start? Why are those plants there? What’s with the sun dial? Garden Guilder Daphne McGuire was kind enough to show me around and answer all of my questions and more.
A small group of about 12 members is responsible for maintaining Sotterley’s wonderful gardens. There is a groundskeeper that mows the lawn and helps with tasks not well-suited to the largely female group (helping out with pesky groundhogs, hauling large bags of mulch, etc)—but it’s mostly just the volunteers of the guild. Many of them have been volunteering for years, such as Duke of Dirt Bob Aldridge, who started in 1996. It was Bob who told me that Elizabeth Harmon, the original Garden Guilder and the one responsible for bringing the gardens back to life, said “you can close a house, you can’t close a garden.” It’s that spirit that’s lived on. And as small-towny as it can be around here, I wasn’t shocked to find that one of the volunteers knows a mutual friend of the family.
I admire that for the Sotterley plant sale (which I have blogged about in the past here and here), as Daphne shared, “we do not go out and buy plants, that doesn’t work for us. We don’t sell annuals unless they’re donated by one of our gardeners who has raised them from seed.” She shared that they did get some herbs and annuals to sell from one of the local Mennonite greenhouses.
As one who has learned the hard way that the fancy exotics don’t always work that well no matter how pretty they are, sales like this are a great way to get plants that you KNOW should work in your area. The whole reason they’re at the sale in the first place is because people have enough to share! Guilders separate plants immediately after the sale or in the fall, then they bury the plants in their pots in the garden. Some are also stored in cold frames or at Guilders’ homes.
History nerd that I am, I was happy to learn that the peonies (one of which I bough offspring of several years ago) are among the garden’s oldest, and have been there for over 100 years. There is rumor that a famous landscape architect designed the gardens, which are very similar to gardens at one of George Washington’s homes, but no official documentation can be found to prove it. The sundial, which the Guild paid to have repaired several years ago, arrived in the 1920s, as did (most likely) the wishing well. The children’s garden, located conveniently next to the “necessary” (AKA the crapper), has been there for many years, but recently had a renovation when Liz, the gardener who cares for it, donated some bonsai trees—some over 25 years old. As I was leaving, one gardener told me how much her grandchild like to play in it when he visited.
The Guild tries to be faithful to what would have been in a similar garden in the 1700s, but many of the plants available then just can’t be found now. Others wouldn’t survive in today’s much different Maryland climate. Still, Bob says, “the plant material should be the source of things that could have been here in the early 20th century…we try to maintain the landscape as we found it. It’s important that we continue the history the shape the thought of the garden as it was in the early years.”
There is a rose garden, a cutting garden, a vegetable, garden, and 3 herb gardens (culinary, medicinal, and aromatic). The herb gardens are a big hit when schools come to visit. I totally get that! One of my first specific plant-related memories is loving the lemon balm at my grandmother’s house because it smelled like…lemon! There are also additions to the herb garden that colonial gardeners may or may not have known. “I was reading an article in a horticulture magazine,” Daphne said, “and it said blackberry lily is an antiviral, so we put some in the garden.” One of her favorite herbs, Sweet Annie, can be used to treat a fever (and also smells good and propagates nicely!).
I got the tip from Daphne to use PREEN (how has no one told me about this before). She showed me the areas she had and had not used it, and I immediately ordered some on Amazon (Lowe’s didn’t have it). I put it in the beds around the house already, and plan on adding it to the side garden once I weed and mulch, and to the driveway once I weed that (ughhhh). She also had some other great tips that I’ll share as the season goes on.
Thank you so much to everyone at the Garden Guild for taking the time to talk! I promise, once my little one gets big enough to come help and have a little fun, you’ve got another volunteer!