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Genealogical gardening
Planting a heritage garden helps you explore your roots


May 2011

Generations ago, immigrants were limited in what they could bring to America. Only a finite number of things could be packed into a trunk. Often those trunks were packed with family treasures and heirlooms, many of which ultimately were buried in the ground once they reached their new homes.

"They definitely brought seeds, tubers and cuttings from the Old Country," says Marcia Carmichael, historic gardens coordinator at Old World Wisconsin. "And when they arrived, they attempted to grow them. They had some pretty great expectations here in the Midwest with our good soil. But they didnít realize that in addition to our cold winters, Wisconsin also has beastly hot summers."

Through trial and error, heritage gardens eventually help sustain those early immigrant families. Generations later, a trend among home gardeners is to revisit those heritage plantings in their own gardens.

"A great place to start is by checking family recipes ó youíll be able to tell which vegetables and herbs were used in your grandmother and great-grandmotherís kitchen," suggests Carmichael. "From there, you can make a list of what youíd like to plant."

She says 21st century gardeners are quite fortunate in that heirloom seeds and plants are much easier to source than they have been in previous decades.

"You can go to Seed Savers Exchange and find a lot of them," she says. "Or you can try and source them locally or through friends and family members."

She encourages beginning heirloom gardeners to cut themselves a little slack in the beginning.

"If you know your family grew cabbage for example, itís perfectly find to just plant the kind of cabbage you remember without worrying about a specific variety," she says. "Thereís this belief that the old gardeners planted single, specific types of plants, but weíve found there was a lot more variety than has been assumed. I also think our modern palates are more sophisticated, so thereís a chance that the exact herb your great-grandparents grew may not appeal to you at all."

Another good source for home heirloom gardeners is Carmichaelís new book, "Putting Down Roots." which is being released this spring by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The book details the work and research surrounding many of the heritage gardens now established at Old World Wisconsin. It can also serve as a blueprint for anyone drawing their inspiration from those particular ethnic groups.

"There are also distinct differences between the gardens," says Carmichael. "For example, we know that a lot of the early American gardeners laid out their gardens like the European monastery gardens, with small beds that could be weeded by hand since they didnít have any tilling equipment."

She says there are aesthetic differences, too.

"The Scandinavian gardens, well Ö they were pretty bland and sparse," she laughs. "But that was because so little grew in their cold climates and they were accustomed to that kind of gardening. And the Poles and Germans often planted herbs, vegetables and flowers in the same little square, so they had very colorful, merry gardens."

While early gardeners werenít concerned with landscaping, they often planted flowers, both in the garden itself and near their homes where they could be easily seen and bring "something pretty" into what was often a very hardscrabble life, particularly for women.

Carmichael will spend this growing season working throughout the various heritage gardens at Old World Wisconsin. So whatís her favorite?

"Itís whichever garden Iím working in," she says diplomatically. "I feel something for every garden; each one is special to me."


This story ran in the May 2011 issue of: