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.
Also on the tour, as described by the Friends of the Rural Heritage Museum:
-The therapeutic gardens at Western Maryland Hospital in Hagerstown, nurtured to instill a sense of calm. You’ll find a butterfly garden, an area with a working model train and water features that honor war veterans, hospital patients and their families.
-The garden owned by Phyllis Groh, also in Hagerstown, with English charm and whimsical garden art.
-The natural, untamed garden “rooms” tended by Denny and Shawen Warrenfeltz of Keedysville.
-The vegetable gardens, perennial flower beds and 20-plus kinds of trees at Log Cabin Crafters in Keedysville. The property sits on old farmland and has more than 400 feet of dry-stone wall that predates the Civil War.
-The gardens of the Criswell Home and Broom Factory, designed to complement the Cotswold cottage style of the English Midlands, with a terraced back yard that provides access to Keedysville’s historic district.
All in all, the tour is a lovely, low-key way to acknowledge the gifts of flora, fauna and well-preserved American history. If you fall a little in love with the area, as I did, make plans to return for the annual Spudfest, to be held this year on the grounds of the Agricultural Education Center on Aug. 27. Kids dig for potatoes, which are turned into potato chips on-site.
The Inn at Antietam
220 E. Main St.
Victorian charm with a baby grand in the parlor. Age 6 and older allowed, but no pets. Rooms $120-$185 a night.
Best Western Grand Venice Hotel
431 Dual Hwy.
$92-$110 per night
A nightclub and cocktail lounge is on the premises.
311 S. Main St.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Entrees $6.95 to $11.95.
Available at the Agricultural Education Center/Washington County Rural Heritage Museum.
Washington County Rural Heritage Museum
7313 Sharpsburg Pike
Saturdays and Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m.; other days by appointment. Donations accepted.
Washington County Second Annual Garden Tour: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets $10; cash only. No pets allowed. Refreshments available at various sites.
The Washington County Master Gardeners will hold an heirloom plant sale at the museum during the day.