As gardeners, we have the ability to preserve history through the active perpetuation of our hobby. We can sow the seeds of a long-passed family member, harvest the crop and have them join us in spirit at our supper table. It is in this way that saving heirloom seeds and preserving timeworn traditions are crucial for sustaining the integrity of our gardens.
At Old Salem Museums and Gardens, historic tradition is central to everything — including what is sown, grown and saved. For many years, horticulturalists at Old Salem have been researching and preserving Moravian plants and seeds to accurately depict what this group of original settlers would have grown within the community.
As a part of its Activate Main Street initiative, Old Salem has brought its horticultural department into the heart of the historic district, so that visitors can actively engage and connect to the process and goals of the gardens’ staff. The newly named Horticulture and Garden Lab is on the second floor of the Herbst House on Main Street, right up the street from the central square at Old Salem.
This new location creates a wealth of opportunities for head gardener Eric Jackson and horticulture staff to interact with the public. Before the department’s move, they were located off Marshall Street, west of the visitor center, several blocks from the historic heart of Old Salem. Although their offices and workspace have always been a delight for any plant enthusiast, they were never open to the public. But starting last September, that has changed.
“It’s a way for people to understand the background of what we do,” Jackson said. “We research the old varieties that we grow and save seeds of all those. This way, people really get that. They come here, they see the seeds, we explain it to them and we direct them out to the garden.”
A lot of changes have happened at Old Salem over the last couple of years, including the focus on several core initiatives. One of these initiatives is Seeds with Stories, which is “aimed at highlighting the histories of Old Salem’s historic plant collection in ways that are engaging to visitors,” Jackson said. Horticulturalists archive a seed’s story — its roots, travel, growth habits, and historical and modern significance — and bring that seed and plant full circle into the life of a visiting child.
Seeds with Stories goes hand in hand with other core initiatives, including Activate Main Street and Learning in Place. The public-facing presence of the Horticulture and Garden Lab is paramount in achieving the goals of these initiatives.
“We’re working on a big change to focus more on science and math and education in broader ways,” Jackson said.
The new seed lab is bright and inviting, especially for gardeners and a plant nerd like myself. Large tables house boxes and trays of dried plants and seed pods. A large double refrigerator flanking one wall houses dozens of glass jars full of preserved seeds. This allows visitors to gauge the enormity of Old Salem’s seed bank.
“They’re all pre-1850 heirlooms or older,” Jackson said. “We try to find things that have a connection to this region or the South or the Moravians. It’s a rebuilding that we’ve done over the last 30 or 40 years.”
The seed lab is open to the public on Salem Saturdays and on high volume days when hundreds of grade school children visit. The space is large enough to accommodate a large group of visitors, and can seat 30 people on benches. Children often engage by shelling out cow peas or by listening to Jackson and other staff explain how they harvested the plants they’re seeing within the room.
Visitors can engage in the seed lab and then venture out into the gardens to see the seeds in action. The Single Brothers Garden is the central garden to Old Salem, and is a direct reflection of the seeds with stories initiative.
“In the Brothers garden, we started six large squares,” Jackson said. “We’ve arranged it and themed the garden. What we decided to do to expand our plant palette and to help communicate some of the stories, is we have a flower square, a seed garden, and a tree nursery with perennial vegetables and herbs.”
“The lower three squares are agricultural crops from Africa, agricultural crops from the Americas, and agricultural crops from Europe. This shows that the plants had histories, too, and they also migrated and changed. We’re trying to tell that story in the confluence of all of them coming together during Salem’s time period.”
From a research standpoint, the work the Old Salem horticultural staff does is fascinating. Discovering traditional uses, growing methods and valuable modern connections is vital to making the work they do relevant in 2020. Old Salem President Frank Vagnone is focused on making sure that history becomes a palpable force.
“It is through Old Salem’s horticulture program and preservation efforts that we can illustrate the larger relevant aspects of history,” Vagnone said. “Not an end in themselves, our interpreted activities are a gateway to understanding how history can be relevant and directly useful in our everyday choices.
“All you have to do is look on the front page of the newspaper to see how a better understanding of history can influence politics, policy-making, and environmental choices. Old Salem is about today — not 1766. That is why the new seed-saving lab is on Main Street. The real power to Old Salem is the activity that preserves it — not the thing itself.”
The Old Salem Horticulture Center and Seed Saving Lab is open every Saturday 9:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m., and is available to tour with a ticket. Please contact Old Salem for tickets or more information, 336-721-7300 or at oldsalem.org.