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Historical Garden Restoration
January 1, 2000

1pt.gif (86 bytes)Reconstructing the gardens at the Colony of Avalon has presented some interesting challenges to botanist Peter Scott
1pt.gif (86 bytes)"...we have both Wheate, Barley, Oates, Pease and Beanes about the quantity of two acres. Of Garden roome about half an acre; the corne, though late sowne, is now earing; the Beanes and the goodliest Pease that I ever saw, have flourished in their bloomes this twenty dayes." wrote Captain Edward Wynne to his employee Sir George Calvert (First Baron Lord Baltimore) in July 28, 1622.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Digging in the archives for information on a 17th century archeological site may seem unusual work for a botanist. But Dr. Peter Scott’s quarrying for clues has led to the reconstruction of three gardens at the Colony of Avalon.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Headed by Dr. Jim Tuck, the Colony is one of the most important archeological sites in British North America. The archeological team has unearthed several buildings and other structures, including a cobblestone floor of a mid-17th century stable, a stone rampart, and a Beothuk hearth. Countless artifacts like ceramic vessels, clay pipes and even gold rings have been carefully removed. These relics were used by the wealthy merchants and some by ordinary folk - folk who, although our ancestors, differed from us in how they walked, talked, smelled, and in what they believed.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Now, in addition to an on-site laboratory open to visitors, three gardens offer a living dimension to this nearly 400 year-old site. In the kitchen garden one can see what the livyers ate. In the walled gentleman’s garden the visitor can smell flowers similar to those a Lady may have cut to brighten up the Mansion house. And in the medicinal garden, we discover what herbs an apothecary may have used to heal a wound, alleviate an ailment or value as an amulet.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)An early concern of the settlers at the Colony of Avalon was food. Letters from Capt. Edward Wynne described his attempts at agriculture and gave an idea of the crops grown. These letters, together with 17th century and later garden and herbal print sources from England - and Scott’s own correspondence with many horticultural societies there - formed a basis for the reconstruction of three gardens.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)The vegetable or kitchen garden is a mix of careful reconstruction and creative inference. It is reproduced in reduced scale. Wynne described the original as about two acres in size. Large enough to feed his colony of over 100 people by 1625. The garden today is located close to where the original Mansion house is believed to have been.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)A willow or wattle fence, common in England since medieval times, enclosed the garden and kept out livestock. Locally available materials of spruce and fir posts woven with alders are used at the reconstructed garden. A hurdle gate, topped with a slate roof, completes the illusion of being at the entrance of a 17th century kitchen garden. Inside, Scott designed the slate-sided raised vegetable beds.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)"There’s so much slate’s just something I did", explains Scott, adding that raised beds were common to the period. "It’s quite likely they would have had beds like that."
1pt.gif (86 bytes)And how did their garden grow?
1pt.gif (86 bytes)"We know from the deeds down there they had a barn with cows so they would have had manure" for fertilizer, says Scott. Weeding, he says, would have all been done by hand. And as for insect pests "handpicking is all they would have had". Scott adds that there probably weren’t too many insect pests then because there was nothing cultivated.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)"Things like slugs, carpenters and earwigs are a fairly recent introduction. The worst pests wouldn’t have been around."
1pt.gif (86 bytes)The vegetables growing duplicate as closely as possible those mentioned by Captain Wynne and include peas, broad beans, carrots, turnips, radishes and "coleworts", or plants of the cabbage family.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Scott selected the varieties mostly on Gerard’s Herbal, of 1633, and "matched them in appearance with today’s". Certain crops took more deduction work. For example, selection for our present-day orange carrots dates back to 1630 in Antwerp. Previous to that carrots were "beet colour or pale yellow," Scott says. Like a true sleuth he tracked seeds of these varieties, still grown in places like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt, and tried them in Newfoundland. They grew miserably, missing the 40 degree C weather.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)On the other hand, the small summer turnips common to that period are growing in the reconstructed garden "They’ve done extremely well...the flavour is incredible," says Scott, admitting he prefers them to the rutabagas we grow today.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Near the entrance to the site is an authentic 17th-century gentlemen’s garden, reproduced in part from plans and illustrations published in the mid-1600s. Characteristically, a gentleman’s garden was 15 yards square, with high stone walls.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)"Such gardens were private places where a gentleman, his family and friends could enjoy the beauty of ornamental plantings in seclusion from the outside world," explains an interpretive sign outside the garden. Geometrically arranged beds, stone walkways and a ‘somer house’, or gazebo, were also customary.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Scott admits that they have no definite knowledge of such a garden at the Colony. But, he points out, gold lady’s rings and a cameo were found. "If there were ladies there would have also been flowers," he says.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)And they would have no doubt been eager to carry on traditions from their native home. In The Old English Herbals, Eleanour Sinclair Sohde writes that "at no time in our history were there greater plant-lovers than in Elizabethan and Stuart times." It was a time when sweet herbs and flowers were used in nosegays, sweet powders and sweet washing waters. Fragrance was highly valued and flowers would be strewn liberally around ladies’ chambers.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Scott used all heritage varieties in the beds, including a variety of rose from 1630. The old rose varieties tend to leaf out very late and look bare, explains Scott, so he has them underplanted with forget-me-nots.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)The garden is an ongoing project.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)"We got the basic plantings done this year, and each year we’ll have to see how they go and gradually fill it out," explains Scott, who selected commonly grown plants of the period. The walkways - a beach rock cobblestone providing a delicious massage to one’s feet - are also nearing completion.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)"They were really big into stones," says Scott, describing the slate pavement found everywhere at the dig site, and the sea wall and barn, also of stone.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)Outside the doors of the interpretation centre is a medicinal garden displaying about three dozen herbs commonly used in England at the time of the Colony of Avalon. John Parkinson, regarded by some as the last of the great English herbalists, authored Theatrum Botanicum in 1640. In it he divided plants into classes like sweet smelling plants, purging plants, wound herbs and hurtful plants. It was a time when herbs were still used as amulets and, for example, the promotion of happiness.
1pt.gif (86 bytes)For the latter, Parkinson advocated the use of Borage, to help expel pensiveness and melancholy. And it is one of the herbs Scott selected for the medicinal garden. Indeed, Borage may have been a useful plant for settlers in a strange new land.

1pt.gif (86 bytes)Interests of freelance writer Alison Dyer include gardening, real food, travel, nature and environmental issues. She enjoys the trials of urban gardening on the slopes of historic Signal Hill in St. John’s, hiking Newfoundland’s coastal trails, and showing her two young children the fun of foraging in the wild. Email:

Artilce originally published in The Telegram, St. John's daily newspaper.


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