June 27, 2012

Tours of Morven’s Kitchen Garden Show Techniques Old and New

MAKING THE GARDEN GROW: Pam Ruch, horticulturist for Morven, in the kitchen garden she designed. Visitors can compare what grows in a modern vegetable garden with what might have grown in an historic one. Onions, kale, broccoli, and tomatoes are among the vegetables planted. Guided tours are available. (Photo by Barbara Webb)

No one knows for sure just what Annis Boudinot Stockton, the wife of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton and the woman sometimes called the Duchess of Morven, planted in her kitchen garden. But staff at the historic house museum next to Borough Hall are taking a very educated guess.

Six beds of vegetables, currently thriving in the peaceful walled garden behind the house, are giving visitors an idea of what might have been growing there in the 19th century. Guided tours are available by reservation three days a week. “There have been kitchen gardens at Morven in the past,” says Pam Ruch, who is Morven’s horticulturist. “But we don’t have a lot of information about them. We do have some recipes from Annis Boudinot, in which she talks about cabbage, green tomatoes, and other vegetables, so that helps us.”

There are are six 12-by-14-foot beds in the garden that Ms. Ruch planned. On one side, heirloom varieties are planted. On the other, modern versions of the same vegetables are growing. “The way we’re treating it is not as a historic recreation,” says Ms. Ruch, “but more as an exhibition where we’re comparing new varieties with heirloom varieties.”

Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated seeds. They were traditionally passed down through generations of gardeners, but are available from many contemporary seed sellers or from the non-profit organization known as Seed Savers Exchange. Most of the seeds used in the modern beds are hybrids, which means they were obtained by crossing two varieties to come up with a third. “Hybridization confers desirable traits such as disease resistance, earliness, high nutrition, or color,” reads a brochure about the Morven garden.

Pole beans on the modern side are grown under tall, symmetrical towers. Across the grass, sticks tied together at the top form a more rustic-looking tower for the heirloom beans. Other beds compare modern and heirloom onions, kale, broccoli, carrots, beets, and tomatoes. The lettuce has already been picked, and 30 pounds of it was donated to the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton.

“We have a succession of early crops,” says Ms. Ruch. “We started with some beautiful heirloom lettuces, and the beds were absolutely luscious.”

The gardens were prepared last year by interns from Isles of Trenton. “This is really their baby,” says Barbara Webb, who is Morven’s director of development. “A tremendous amount of work has been done by them. They are here again this summer and will be back at work, tending that garden as well as other ones on the property. Funding for all of this came from the New Jersey Committee of the Garden Club of America, and from Bloomberg, and we were really grateful for that.”

Research has shown that as early as 1768, the Morven property was big enough for farm fields and orchards. In the mid-19th century, Commodore Robert Field Stockton’s daughter-in-law Sara Stockton was writing in her diary about making jellies from the quinces and grapes on the property. Gardener Bernard Masterson is said to have won prizes for the vegetables he grew in the garden once a pump was installed in 1850.

Ms. Ruch comes to Morven from her home in Emmaus, Pennsylvania a few days a week. She also grows vegetables and tends the landscape for an inn near her home, and writes for websites about gardening. She expects that many of the visitors touring the garden this summer will be most interested in learning growing techniques.

“Vegetable growing has gotten popular over the last five years, with the local food movement, so people are generally interested in how to grow vegetables,” she says. “I think that’s what people will want to know about, and that’s my expertise. But Meg Rich, who has done most of the planting, gave a tour to our docents, and they were very interested in the history. So she knows about that.”

Produce in the garden has some fanciful names. Take the kale, for instance: The heirloom “Red Russian” is compared with the modern hybrid “Rainbow,” a cross with a purple stem derived from the Italian heirloom “Lacinato” and “Aunt Beedy’s Camden,” found growing wild in Camden, Maine in the 1980’s. The heirloom “White Belgian” carrot was once common on European farms but is now considered rare. Modern varieties of carrots include “Bolero Nantes.”

Next year, the garden will be different. “The beauty of using a kitchen garden as an exhibit space is that everything in it is either an annual or bi-annual plant,” says Ms. Ruch. “So it is not meant to be there more than one year. Next year, there will be something entirely new.”

Guided tours of the garden are given Wednesdays to Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and are included in the admission fee for the museum. Call (609) 924-8144 ext. 113 to make a reservation.