As you head through the Western Maryland foothills of the Allegheny Mountains — slightly more than an hour’s drive from the northwest corner of the Capital Beltway — the scenery soothes the way for a simple appreciation of nature. The garden tour is self-guided, sponsored by the Friends of Washington County Rural Heritage Museum in Boonsboro, and offers a genteel introduction to the local folks who live and work and grow history from the ground up.
This year’s six featured gardens are just a few miles apart, in Hagerstown, Boonsboro and Keedysville, and represent a range of formal and informal outdoor spaces. Organizers suggest that visitors plan to spend 45 minutes to an hour at each one. Start at any of the tour stops, hand over a sawbuck and you’ll receive a map and a ticket to be punched along the way.
Even someone with a thumb as black as a charcoal briquette can appreciate the ingenuity of a typical German foursquare garden like the one on the grounds of the Rural Heritage Museum. If you pack a lunch, picnic tables and shade trees make this an ideal midafternoon stop. Although you’ll be tempted to pop into the museum and its outlying historic cabins, come back the next day for that. The museum’s minutiae and great machinery provide fascinating insights into rural life through the 1940s and deserve a separate day of exploration.
The garden was put together according to specifications used by 18th- and 19th-century Swiss and German settlers: four symmetrical raised beds with packed-earth walkways between and around them. The area is enclosed by a chest-high picket fence, its lengths measured in multiples of 11 feet; this one is 66 feet on each side, a common size at the time. The Washington County Master Gardeners on hand as tour guides may point out that the paths have been widened to make this garden handicapped-accessible.
Originally, such a garden was akin to having an organic market and holistic pharmacy right outside the kitchen door. It was tended by women and meticulously kept. Everything had a purpose, whether medicinal, culinary or textile. In this particular re-creation, only heirloom seeds and plants have been used. You’ll find deer-tongue lettuce, “walking” onions, trellised beans, cucumbers and six kinds of tomato plants, to name a few. Great bushes of horseradish and rhubarb anchor the corners.
Sedum was planted on either side of the garden entrance to ward off lightning — a German superstition, supposedly — but the aloelike substance inside its leaves was also handy for dressing a cook’s burns. Stalks of asparagus are almost unrecognizable; per the custom of the day, they have been allowed to go to seed, sprouting so many thin, wispy branches that they made effective bug screens for windows when dried. Look for a working example of the nation’s first documented scarecrow: a sweet potato stuck with feathers, gently swinging on a string.