April greetings, and that freeze we had earlier this week was no joke, right? Hope none of your plants got zapped. I was grateful for my own procrastination; my brassica seedlings won’t go into the ground until this weekend.
The uncertain temperatures of early spring make me think longingly of the more settled weather of mid-May (before I start complaining loudly about how hot it is). Another reason to look forward to May: the return of Montgomery County’s big Grow It Eat It open house on May 14!
The Jane Gates Heritage House located on Greene Street in Cumberland, Maryland is a non-profit museum and community center started by John and Sukh Gates to honor the spirit of John’s third great-grandmother, Jane Gates (c. 1819 – 1888). Jane lived most of her life enslaved, most likely in or near Cumberland. She obtained freedom when slavery was abolished in Maryland in November 1864.
Jane purchased the house and lot for $1400 in 1871 in the current location of 515, 511, and 509 Greene Street. Jane Gates is listed in the 1870 U.S. Census in the house at 515 Greene Street as a nurse and a laundress, age 51, living with two of her children and two grandchildren. The house at 515 is Jane’s original dwelling. The houses at 511 and 509 were built decades later by one of Jane’s daughters and a granddaughter. Jane Gates is also the second great-grandmother of Dr. Paul Gates and his brother Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a scholar of African American culture at Harvard University and host of the PBS program, “Finding Your Roots.” Jane’s house is featured in his PBS documentary, “African American Lives II.”
The mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House is to empower, enrich, and enhance the lives of all through faith, education, and history. Along with African American history, the President of the board of directors, Sukh Gates, is passionate about teaching elementary-aged children crucial life skills such as healthy living and growing and preparing food.
To reach this goal, Sukh wanted to transform the backyard of the house into a teaching garden. She asked for help from the Master Gardeners in Allegany County to design and install the garden. I developed a plan based on Sukh’s goals and the available land at the house. The plan called for four raised beds for vegetables, a small bed for fruit along an existing wall, and a pollinator garden along the fence that borders the alley.
The Jane Gates Heritage House received a grant from the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture to renovate the house but not the grounds. Sukh and I applied for a grant from the Allegany Work Group of the Western Maryland Food Council to build the raised beds. In March 2020, the Food Council awarded $600 to cover the cost of materials and soil. Josh Frick, my husband, constructed the raised beds on site. Our families then worked together to install the raised beds and fill them with soil. In June, Master Gardeners donated and planted fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers in the gardens. The local wildlife posed quite a challenge, prompting the Gates family to erect a fence to protect their fledgling garden. By mid-July, Sukh excitedly picked the first zucchini.
This project fostered a growing friendship between Sukh and me and our respective organizations. I regularly consulted with Sukh over the summer and into the fall. Sukh, new to gardening, was amazed by the beauty, the challenges, and the serenity afforded by the garden.
In the course of inspecting the pollinator garden for weeds, I noticed a plant that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. This plant looked familiar, like a flower of some kind, but it had not been planted by Master Gardeners. It was a volunteer that had re-seeded and spread itself from times past. It grew along the alley behind the house. I pondered this a while, and it finally came to me. This plant is soapwort!
Soapwort, whose botanical name is Saponaria officinalis, may be more familiar to you as bouncing Bet or wild sweet William. European colonists brought soapwort to America because it had several essential uses. Sap from the roots and stems can be combined with water to create a lathery soap solution traditionally used to clean delicate textiles and woolen fabrics. This plant naturalized throughout North America. Further inquiry reveals that bouncing Bet (Bet is short for Bess) is an old English nickname that means washerwoman. The hook was set; Sukh and I wanted to learn more.
This discovery prompted Sukh and me to learn more about 19th Century laundering techniques. In the 1800s, the boiling of textiles in a large kettle was part of the laundering regimen. An archeological dig in 2019 led by Oxbow Cultural Research principal Suzanne Trussell found remnants of burned wood behind the house, near to where the soapwort grows. The wood was in the ground at an angle, which may indicate Jane used a tripod to hold a large kettle over a fire. Could this have been the spot where Jane spent long hours laboring? Could Jane have planted the soapwort nearby because she used it as part of her cleaning process? We can’t know for sure, but it’s fascinating to consider.
Flowers for pollinators
Fenced fruit garden
Finding soapwort created a lead-in to explore Jane’s life as a laundress and to search for further relevant connections. The more we delved into history, the more Jane Gates came alive. Jane’s probable daily routines, methods, and challenges became clearer. Suddenly the life of Jane Gates became tangible. This is the mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House, after all, to learn from Jane by connecting the past to the present. The providential discovery of this inconspicuous plant shed light on the life of this remarkable woman, Jane Gates, and for that we are grateful.
If you would like to learn more about the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their Facebook page and if you would like to donate to the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their GoFundMe page.
By Sherry Frick, Master Gardener Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension, Allegany County.
This year we set aside a 10×10 foot plot at the Derwood Demo Garden as the Grow It Eat It Garden. We planted “typical” backyard vegetable crops, harvested and weighed the results, and made an attempt to calculate the value of the produce based on grocery store prices, as another data point in the continuing debate over whether it’s reasonable to declare that having your own vegetable garden is a great way to save money. Have we come to any definite conclusions? Not sure. But here’s the data. First, have some beans.
(Kentucky Wonder pole beans on the left, Masai bush beans on the right. I am a big fan of Masai now – nice little compact plants with a huge yield. The pole beans pulled the teepee over; what else can I say?)
My previous post on the totals through July showed we’d harvested $153 worth of produce. Here’s the update, August through October:
Tomatoes: 19 lbs
Zucchini: 3 lbs (our one plant succumbed to mildew and squash bugs)
Peppers: 6.5 lbs
Basil: 5.5 lbs
Beans: 27.5 lbs (yes, seriously)
Mesclun: 1/2 lb
My estimated total value for these crops: $234. So that’s $387 for the year.
Notes and caveats:
As I’ve said before, the demo garden is not your home garden. We work once a week, occasionally more often, sometimes less often due to weather. We can’t always keep up with harvesting and so some produce is wasted, and we can’t always keep up with pest and disease management. I wish we could be there every day inspecting plants for damage as you should in home gardens, but since we are all volunteers it’s just not possible. And by the same token we are not as efficient as we should be in planting succession crops; we should have had some fall crops in that garden and just didn’t get to it (aside from the pitiful harvest of mesclun). So a home garden ought to be more productive.
The price selection process is fuzzy and unscientific. I didn’t go for the cheapest possible prices or the most expensive or necessarily a consistent level of price (though most of them are from Giant). Prices change through the season and I did not keep that in mind, just tried to choose an average. Some of the prices reflect the low end of organic produce costs, since our garden is an organic one, or farmer’s market/locally grown costs. I went for a higher price on tomatoes, for example, which brought the total up considerably, because I personally feel there’s a big difference between locally grown tomatoes that may cost more and cheap ones that are shipped unripe. Whereas with zucchini and cucumbers the origin makes less difference and so I used a “bargain” price.
Another reason the total jumped is the high price of basil and the amount we harvested from our plants. This might not be as worthwhile to someone who doesn’t like pesto.
Now, subtractions. Many people who argue that vegetable gardening is not monetarily worthwhile are including the start-up costs of a new garden: tools, fencing, soil enhancements, etc. I agree that these costs will eat up $387 pretty quickly. However, once you have the tools and the fence they will last you a long time (and you might still manage to break even that first year!). So let’s choose to make our subtractions based on the idea of an established garden. You may need some new soil enhancements, if you haven’t been composting: perhaps about $30. Another $30 or so for fertilizer. About $20 for seeds (remember that some of them can be used next year), and then another miscellaneous $20 for garden things you didn’t get last year. That brings your “profit” down well under $300, but it’s still not bad. Again, totally unscientific, and it is always possible to waste money on a garden, as I well know. But with careful planning and maintenance you should be able to save instead of spend.
You can also choose your crops based on what costs the most at the store, although I think the first priority should always be what you will most enjoy eating, and then what you will most enjoy growing. Carrots may be cheap to buy, and not always the easiest to grow in our soil, but if you really want to try purple carrots then try them! Just learn as much as you can about growing them successfully before you start; knowledge is one of the biggest cost-savers out there.
And no matter what you save or don’t save, you have also gained a lot just by being in the garden: getting exercise, learning about nature, knowing that you produced your own food. That’s worth a lot, whether it can be measured at a cash register or not.
This year in the Derwood Demo Garden we planted a 10×10 bed we’re calling the Grow It Eat It Garden. It’s meant to represent a typical home garden with the most usually grown vegetable crops, and our goal is to weigh all the produce that comes out of it and assess a value based on average grocery cost, so the hypothetical homeowner can see how much he/she is saving.
That’s a single tomato and a single zucchini. More to come, we hope! The tomato plants (one Brandywine OTV and one Carnival) look great, and so far so does the zucchini plant (Fordhook), though we are squashing squash bug eggs like crazy and have lost plants in other parts of the garden to borers. Our cucumber plant (Salad Bush) succumbed to wilt after an attack of cucumber beetles. I’ve planted another but it probably won’t get going in time to produce much else this season. We would normally have beans by now but had a little accident getting started and will have a delayed harvest – very soon now. Fall crops go in soon.
As I’ve said before, I think the average homeowner, even a beginner, could do better than we have because of the ability to tend plants daily and replant in a more timely fashion when a crop was finished. And if I was going to do this garden over I’d probably try to stuff more plants in there. We’ve got a big garden to tend aside from this one bed, but if all you’ve got is 100 square feet, might as well make the most of it!
And the total cost savings so far, calculated based on Giant supermarket prices: $153. Cost of getting the garden started not subtracted, but let’s do that at the end of the season!
Of course, there are benefits beyond cost savings to having your own garden: knowing where your food comes from, learning about plants and insects, having fun and getting exercise. I do recommend a scale, though; gives you a sense of satisfaction.
(photos by Katherine Lambert of MGs Erica Smith, Maria Wortman, and Millicent Lawrence)