The Local Food Report: a cottage comeback

I have always been fascinated by history. I like to know how things were—before we messed with them, originally, in the past. So Deirdre Portnoy had my immediate attention when I found out she was ripping up the front lawn at the Wellfleet Historical Society to put in a 19th century cottage garden in place of the weeds and crabgrass.

Cottage gardens
are the old English kind—that distinct style of dense plantings hedged with boxwoods and lined with picket fences and brick pathways in a way that is at once homely, graceful, and charming. Portnoy can't be sure that's what was on the lawn of the old 1860s home that houses the historical society—there are very few pictures of Wellfleet front yards from that period, and even in the ones we do have, it's difficult to make out the varieties and organization of the plants—but she knows that stylized cottage gardens were incredibly popular at the time. In a town like Wellfleet—coastal, busy, prosperous—it's as likely a guess as any.

And so Portnoy ripped up the lawn—pulled out the crabgrass and started turning earth. Locals donated a granite step, and bricks and help to put in a walkway that leads down from the sidewalk to the old millstone that steps up to the front door. Portnoy lined the front with a picket fence, the sides with English boxwoods, and started filling in the middle with flowers and fruits and culinary and medicinal herbs.

She planted all sorts of things—too many to list—but I'll give you the highlights. There's a Seckel pear tree—short, semi-dwarfed, with small, sweet fruit that's good for canning. For medicinals there's bee balm and rue and echinachea, and a particular kind of yarrow known as Achillea millefolium. For cooking herbs there are rosemary and thyme and chives and sage, for fruits a whole bank of strawberries, and plans for heirloom tomatoes come spring. There are callendula flowers and nasturtiums and a beautiful Cape Cod climbing rose twining around the fence.

The biggest surprise, Portnoy says, was how many varieties of herbs and flowers she found from the cottage period are still in use today. Some plants she had to dig around for—it's hard to find specific historic varieties these days, now that many tags don't carry the second Latin name—but between the garden stores and donations, she managed to get the yard pretty well filled in. Next spring, she's hoping to make an educational brochure with the historic uses and plant names, and she left room for walking in curved, ampitheater-style pathways.

If you have a chance, go check it out. It's still a work in progress, and the weather isn't doing much for its looks, but the layout of it, the look, is very inspiring. And just in case you get really inspired, below I've made a list of the books Portnoy used in the project, to help you with your own come spring.


American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century: For Use or for Delight, by Ann Leighton

For Every House a Garden: A Guide for Reproducing Period Gardens, by Rudy and Joy Favretti

Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings, by Rudy and Joy Favretti


Jhope said...

This post IS inspiring, as is your blog. We move to Wellfleet in a few wks, and your blog is the best preview of all I am looking foward to. The local food movement has really taken off since we last lived there.

p.s Happy Anniversary!

Alison said...

It's so wonderful to see historical societies on the Cape start to embrace the gardens of the time, as well as the period furniture indoors. My father-in-law oversees the gardens at the Caleb Nickerson house in Chatham and has worked hard to provide an example of an early Cape Cod garden (both herb and vegetable). If you haven't visited it, you should (obviously it's done for the season this year)...they also have occasional open hearth cooking classes. =)

Elspeth said...

thank you jhope. i find your work inspiring as well...it's so important to put our kids in clothes that are both safe and adorable. very excited to hear we'll have you as a neighbor soon! i think you'll find it isn't hard to get inspired in a place like this.

and alison, i had no idea you were connected with the nickerson house. i've heard about it but have never been able to make it to one of the demonstrations. i'll have to put that on the list! (also i have been dying to make your apple pie...it looks TO DIE FOR.)

all the best,

Anonymous said...

Great post! I’m looking to make some changes in my own eating habits and learning to cook, so I appreciate your insight a lot! Thank you. I recently stumbled upon this blog like I did yours and I thought your readers may appreciate it: http://burisonthecouch.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/food-for-thought/

I’ve started to look for blog help more regularly and I think I’m going to add your blog to my list as well. Thanks for the post!


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Sarah Connell said...

I’m sure you will share my pain to discover that the Wellfleet Historical Society has destroyed this garden. My father donated the funds to create and preserve this garden as a memorial to my mother, Susan Cheney Connell. She had been a dedicated volunteer for decades and he felt it was the best tribute to her life he could make. The Historical Society has demolished it, without even a courtesy note to her heirs. Please share this tragic story with your readers. And I’d like to suggest that anyone who goes to Wellfleet stop by and shar ether displeasure with the museum. I deeply regret his decisions to donate to the Wellfleet Historical Society & Museum. Now she has no memorial.

dong said...

here are very few pictures of Wellfleet front yards from that period, and even in the ones we do have, it's difficult to make out the varieties and organization of the plants—but she knows that stylized cottage gardens were incredibly popular at the time. In a town like Wellfleet—coastal, busy, prosperous—it's as likely a guess as any.
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