The autumn breeze that stirs stalk and leaf in this 18th Century garden carries a drowsy hint of lavender. Four sprawling raised beds are arranged in the good German tradition: a square hemmed with pickets, divided by a stone pathway in the shape of a cross.
It’s early October in the kitchen garden at Schifferstadt, an imposing Maryland farmhouse built in 1758. Most of the season’s harvest has come and gone, leaving brown skeletons to rattle their dried-out seed heads in the chilly sunlight. But the hardiest botanicals are still green and several remain stubbornly in bloom: French lavender, flowering tobacco, calendula, yarrow.
Nearly three weeks into my road trip, I’m now in the valley just beyond the easternmost ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from the presidential retreat at Camp David. I’m gathering material on heirloom plants for my upcoming online course, The Heirloom Garden in Colored Pencil. And so I spent an afternoon sharing the Schifferstadt plots with the bees and mantises, marveling over colonial plants I rarely see in my own subtropical climate zone.
The biggest plantings were those varieties offering the widest range of practical uses in the farmer’s household. One particularly choice slice of garden real estate was occupied by Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), a feathery groundcover with an astonishing job description: it is a vegetable rennet for making cheese, a delightfully honey-scented mattress stuffing material, the roots produce red dye and the flowers yield a yellow hair rinse reputed to be popular with young milkmaids.
I’m traveling in my camper studio, “Beatrix,” with two canine co-pilots, Atticus and Jo. Two weeks ago, we made our way up through the fall wildflowers of Georgia and Virginia to spend some time in the rolling ridges near Washington D.C. Tomorrow, we’ll turn the steering wheel southward and roll down through Tennessee and Mississippi, back home to coastal Alabama and the little farmhouse at the end of the road. I have lots of fresh material for the Heirloom Garden course, courtesy of Maryland’s abundant flora. It has been a good journey.