Monday, August 29, 2016

History and Humble Beginnings Part Two: Slater Mill

Once upon a time, fabric was made and dyed in Pawtucket, RI.  You can see some of the machines from the Industrial Revolution's birth at the Slater Mill on Main St. Now, URI Master Gardener volunteers have recreated gardens similar to those of that time, even using brick and stone from demolished buildings from the turn of last century to make the edges of raised beds and create stairways.  

Native sunflowers stand tall, visited by bees and birds. Kitchen garden crops popular at that time, like pat-a-pan squash, ripen.  In this hot, dry summer, the arugula has already gone to seed, but New Englanders would have saved those seeds for the following year.  Onions were also in this stage, but some fruit trees and gourds were just at their peak.  The garden also includes several medicinal plants common to the time, as well as the "fabric" plants: cotton and flax.

Not much further,  labeled plants are grown as a demonstration of their use in dyes: red ox blood beet roots, yellow tansy or goldenrod flowers, ochre onion skins, blue woad and false indigo...  A volunteer tells of her surprises using mordants like alum and vinegar.  The understated bronze fennel (the whole plant) will give a clear yellow with a little help from alum, but the bright, hot pink and orange petals of zinnia with give a soft beige or tan.  Sunflower petals may yield yellow or green.  Many of the plants require alum to bring out the full color, such as is used with (rose) madder to make reds.  With bloodroot, a native plant, no mordant will yield an orange color from the roots and adding alum will yield rust.  

All these plants must be harvested at the right time for the right parts.  I may have just missed making blue with my Russian sage, but I'm not going to miss making yellows with some native goldenrod and European tansy flowers!

Mallow, as in, marshmallow.

Native goldenrod.
Crested celosia, i.e. cockscomb.

Nasturtium: Edible flowers, leaves, buds, and seeds.
China aster.
Cotton seeds and fluff on right.

For ways you can try making dyes at home, for eggs or socks or tie-dye, try these sites:

I also like using purple cabbage to make blue.  More blue plant dyes here.  My first graders don't know this yet, but we will be making paint this year!

Ox blood beet, for red.

Calendula: Yellow dye and skin cream.
Teasal: Out of season.

Flax: Out of season.

Onion bulbs and seeds.
Love Lies Bleeding.  Amaranth seeds.
Lupines late in bloom and with seed pods.

Support for squash with sunflowers.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

History and Humble Beginnings: Part One

Thinking locally, I look around in a 100 mile radius at what others are doing to promote biodiversity, but history as well.  We've all driven past gas stations with plastic flower deserts and pharmacy and shopping centers with Stella d'Oro lilies adding color (and nectar for a few), and not much else.  But for all those visible faux pas, there are the less visible but much more viable private and community gardens, even restored historical gardens.

This month I visited a number of gardens in RI and a very special one in Amherst, MA.  Let's start there.  Emily Dickinson, famous after her death for her poetry and reclusiveness, was an avid gardener educated in botany.  She called her garden "controlled chaos" and tended her flowers, herbs, and vegetables by lantern at night, to avoid being disturbed.  It was in her thirties she became more and more reclusive, whittling her world down to the family home and grounds and walks to her brother's home next door.


Touring Emily's family home, you could see the Puritan influences.  Emily's bedroom was sparse, with a bed, dresser, wash basin, chamber pot, little heating stove, and of course, her writing desk.  The facsimile wallpaper was a riot of unnamed roses.  There were a few photos and a small painting as well.  The rest of the home contained a parlor with a Wilkinson piano (many family members played) and Aeolian harp (played by the wind), a library that showed they subscribed to Atlantic Monthly, a modest kitchen, etc.

Emily was quite fond of Susan, her sister-in-law, and visited her and the children often.  The Evergreens, as her brother William's house was called, was much more showy: Original and reproduced works from William and Susan Dickinson's European travels, Near East prints and rugs, a kitchen with a pass-through opening to the dining room for servants to deliver food from, a library, a drawing room, bedrooms, servant rooms, and an open porch facing out toward the town.  The porch served almost as a "stage", playing their part as their father was very involved in the town as a lawyer and legislator and in bringing the railroad to Amherst, and his father founded Amherst College.  


Perhaps this constant attention on the family lead to Emily's reclusiveness. But for all her simple living, what she had seen and done remained with her.  The train appeared in her poems more than once.  She was only 14 when she started her herbarium, or collection of pressed flowers and herbs meticulously labeled.  She attended what is now Amherst College for 7 years and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary School for a year.  Flowers and herbs, their botanical parts named, insects, snakes and birds, metaphors she didn't have to go far to find to take you on a journey.

The museums are a work in progress.  Since her death in 1848 at the age of 55, both homes have suffered their age, from peeling wallpaper to water damage.  Later owners made changes, which have since been removed.  Cracks in the walls and ceiling have boards screwed into them until proper repairs can be made.

But the work continues.  The great oak tree still stands.  Some trees were lost in a hurricane.  Others had been replaced with a tennis court (now removed).  The orchard Emily's mother tended is being restored.  Baldwin, Westfield, Seek-No-Furthers, and Winter Nelis saplings grow as the soaker hose alleviates the very dry summer this year.  More apple and pear varieties will be planted soon.

Through ground-sounding equipment, the locations of Emily's and sister Lavinia's gardens were discovered.  Volunteers planted what was typical of the time, also identifying plants described in her poetry and collected in her herbarium.  (My next trip up there must include a trip to Harvard's Houghton Library, which holds her 400 plus pressed flowers and plants.)  

Construction of her greenhouse begins this month.