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LIFE GARDEN neversink valley museum ny d&h canal park rehab 1850s herb garden
neversink valley museum ny d&h canal park rehab 1850s herb garden

Evolution of an Herb Garden


The Question: How to rehab a replica of a Mid-1800s herb garden at the Neversink Valley Museum of History and Innovation in Cuddebackville, New York with no money or supplies?

The answer: a spark of interest by one person that ignites a fire among others. And so it was when, last summer, DIG IT! visited the Museum’s dilapidated garden struggling to survive.

The Neversink Valley Museum is dedicated “to preserving and interpreting the history of the Neversink Valley with an emphasis on the Delaware and Hudson Canal, which transported coal 108 miles from Honesdale, Pennsylvania to Kingston, New York from 1828-1898, and was a major influence in the development of our area during the 19th-century.”

Like any garden, this one evolved; however, as a stepchild of Father Time and the public domain system, it had many care-takers and often, none although, occasionally, it was stellar. The garden was begun in the 1980s by a group of Museum board members who designed and created a replica of a mid-1800s herb garden next to the circa 1850s carpenter’s house (now the museum). Cornell Cooperative Extension in Middletown, NY, constructed the garden with picket fence and stone paths. The property is part of the D& H Canal Park in the Orange County NY Parks and on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It was a way to have herbs for demonstrations and programs,” says Chuck Thomas, one of the originators. They sold herbs and seeds at fundraisers and in the Museum and did interpretive walks. “It was a good way for us to talk about herbs in everyone’s lives in America in the 1800s.”

In 1991, board member Penny Watkins joined Master Gardener Alice Dodge Simpson and was soon spellbound enough to become a Master Gardener herself. Watkins did a new master plan for the garden though, by then, it had raised beds and a companion Three Sisters Garden. The two ladies did programs with herbs, made vinegars and potpourri, dried flowers and led interpretive walks. “It was a demo garden of medicinal, culinary and useful herbs, a functional herb garden for the museum,” says Watkins, “to make the museum more user-friendly. It was a learning garden.”

But by summer 2012, the garden was in serious decline – broken fence boards, chipped paint, eroded topsoil, scant struggling plants and washed out gravel paths. The garden, my friends, was blowing in the wind.

So DIG IT! volunteered to solicited sponsors to donate all materials necessary to rehabilitate the garden and after planning and research, visited kind and generous local businesspeople. Interestingly, there was ready willingness to be involved in the project, resulting in donations of perennial herbs, topsoil, mulch and soaker hoses (so far) to resurrect the garden.

The challenge lay in coordinating volunteers to get plants and others with pick up trucks to get the topsoil and to receive mulch deliveries, all in the correct order before winter came. Our water system installer either lost patience or got too busy to wait until volunteers were able to shovel topsoil into the beds and then plant the herbs.

Two soil companies donated topsoil/compost mixes. By late fall, the soil was in the beds with enough left for the Boy Scouts’ circular “Three Sisters Garden.”

Meanwhile, a small nursery much off the beaten track donated perennial herbs, an old-time hardware store donated soaker hoses, and a construction company stood by with three yards of mulch, waiting patiently till we needed it.

On a balmy December 3, the herb garden was finally planted with culinary and medicinal perennials used in 1850s herb gardens. A few more plants need to be acquired and planted in spring.

Planted Perennial Herbs with ecological, culinary, aromatic and medicinal qualities:
Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum') yellow flowers in umbels in summer; attracts predator bugs, bees, butterflies and birds; one of the oldest cultivated plants; edible anise-flavored foliage and seeds, condiment to salt fish. Medicinally used for weight loss and “hung over doors on Midsummer's Eve to warn off evil spirits.”

English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’) lavender or white flower spikes in mid-summer; attracts butterflies and bees; repels clothing moths; flowers flavor ice cream, cookies, tea, Herbes de Provence; aromatic flowers and foliage for potpourris, sachets, pillows; oils used in aromatherapy, perfumes, body oils, soap, insect repellents. Medicinally used for digestion, wound disinfection, circulation stimulant, sedative, antispasmodic, stomach disorders, loss of appetite.

Lovage (Levisticum officinale) yellow flowers in spring; all parts edible with celery-like flavor, salads, candied seeds. Oil of lovage used in love potions; foliage for bathing and breath sweetener, skin rashes, air freshener and foliage necklace to ward off bodily odors. Charlemagne and Thomas Jefferson loved lovage. Medically used as diuretic, to improve digestion and to stay alert.

French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. 'Sativa') foliage has sweet anise flavor for sweets, liqueurs, meats, fish, eggs, salad, soup, fines herbes and Bearnaisse sauce; repels insect pests and enhances growth of other plants. Its fragrance is used in perfumes. Medically, it may help cure heart disease, peripheral neuropathy, diabetes, flatulence, rheumatism, and toothache. Middle Ages pilgrims wore it on their boots and Henry VIII and Thomas Jefferson loved it.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) flowers used in ; foliage for flavoring savory dishes; Oil used as disinfectant, antiseptic, cure for ringworm, preserved meat, in ointment to keep OFF bugs and in soap and sachet. Medicinally, it cured bronchitis, sore throats, psoriasis, burns, warts, stomach aches and leprosy.

Common Sage ( Salvia officinalis) lavender flowers attract bees, butterflies and birds; foliage flavors meats, baked goods, butter; oils and foliage repel bacteria, viruses, fungi and clothing moths. Medicinally, leaves help sore throats, digestion, excessive sweating and aching joints in a bath.

Berggarten Sage (Salvia officinalis cv Berggarten Sage) purple flowers early to mid summer. Uses are the same as Common sage but has stronger flavor.

Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea) white and blue flowers, magick herb helps with vivid dreams, clairvoyance; foliage is used as a sedative, perfume fixer and in the bath, leads to a romantic evening; leaves flavor tobacco and Muscatel and fritters cure a weak back.

Feverfew (Tanecetum parthenium) white daisies with yellow centers from June to August, banishes menstrual cramps, toothaches and pain from insect bites; repels insects and migraines. In wine it expels afterbirth and sadness.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea ‘Camelot Rose’) pink, white flowers in late spring, all parts Poisonous! Atropine is antidote; and, conversely, foxglove is an antidote for aconite poisoning. Leaves once used to cleanse and heal wounds; increases muscular activity especially heart, improves circulation and helps mania, epilepsy and kidney problems.

Garlic chives ( Allium tuberosum) a.k.a. Chinese chives or leeks white flowers in late summer-early fall, chively edible and ornamental.

Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) silvery leaves and pale yellow flowers, all parts Poisonous! Repels garden pests, fleas and moths indoors; suppresses weeds; once used in absinthe but now banned; medicinal, ornamental. Ancient Mexicam women wore head garlands of wormwood to celebrate the Goddess of Salt What more can you ask?

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Moonshine’) a.k.a. bad man's plaything, nose bleed, devil’s nettle, old-man’s-pepper and stenchgrass Yellow flowers; repels herbaceous insects; attracts predacious insects like lady bugs, hoverflies and predatory wasps; stabilizes and fertilizes soil, rejuvenates troubled plants growing nearby. Medicinal uses: stops excessive bleeding (take some crushed leaves when hiking), tea reduces swelling, fights bacteria, helps digestion, soothes stomach pain and sore throats.

One leftover plant, dug up and relocated in the garden: Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) yellow button flowers; medicinal, repels ants, cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles, squash bugs; companion plant to cucurbits. Weedy but helpful.

Possible herbs to get in spring:
Hyssop (Hyssop officinalis)
Common Bugloss (Anchusa officinalis)
Rue (Ruta graveolens)
Purple Betony (Stachys officinalis)
Beebalm (Monarda didyma) a.k.a. Oswego Tea, bergamot
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

Businesses that supported the garden’s rehabilitation:
In New York: Organic Recycling/Alder's Topsoil Supply, Pine Island Turf Nursery ,Otisville Hardware and Suburban Excavating. In New Jersey, Fair Acres Farm, Old Man Music and DIG IT! Magazine.

Volunteers that make it happen! Demetre Bove, Seth Goldman, Kate and Rob Honders, Mary Jasch, David Lawrence, Frank Simpson, Mike Zemski and sons Michael and Andrew, and Florence Gray who has tended the garden for many years.

Known former garden friends: Norma Schadt, Alice Dodge Simpson, Donna Stefans, Chuck Thomas, Penny Watkins

We are still in need of someone to connect and lay out the soaker hoses, provide plants listed above, supply gravel for paths, paint the fence and make signage. If interested, please contact

Visit Neversink Valley Museum of History and Innovation
** All photos by Mary Jasch unless otherwise noted.

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published December 27, 2012

Photos to enlarge

The dilapidated herb garden at Neversink Valley Museum, early August 2012

Garden is overgrown and soil is depleted, early August 2012

Volunteers Mike Zemski and sons Michael and Andrew dig out old plants in late August. Photo courtesy Neversink Museum

Andrew Zemski works on 1.3 yards of beautiful topsoil/compost blend, late August 2012. Photo courtesy Neversink Museum

Mike Zemski spreads black gold in a clean garden bed. Can't you hear it sigh? Late August 2012. Photo courtesy Neversink Museum

Neversink Valley Museum offices, store and blacksmith shop, late December 2012

Herb garden cleaned up, planted and lightly mulched, covered in snow. Late December 2012

4 yards of mulch and what's left of 3.5 yards of soil destined for the Three Sisters Garden in front of the bench built by Boy Scouts. Late December 2012

Common sage feeling good in a great light mulch in late December 2012

The Boy Scouts' Three Sisters Garden waiting for rejuvenation in Spring. Late December 2012

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