Step Into the Past at These Four Historical Gardens

Tended by URI Master Gardeners, these properties offer fragrant ways to experience our local heritage.

Prescott Farm: An Outdoor Classroom for All Ages

historical-gardens

Clockwise from left: Tarragon, horehound and St. John’s Wort mingle in the foreground with Eastern lupine, while feverfew and lavender bloom in the back. Rosemary and thyme are fragrant additions to the herb garden. A bee rests on some hyssop. Photography by Chris Vaccaro.

In 2005, a horticulturist at the nonprofit Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) contacted the head of the Master Gardener program at the University of Rhode Island to propose a partnership: He asked if the gardeners would be interested in managing two unkempt gardens at Prescott Farm in Middletown. The NRF, which was founded by heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke in 1968, owns and manages a collection of nearly eighty historic buildings on Aquidneck Island, several of which are located on the forty-acre farm. With so many projects on so many properties requiring his attention, the gardens at Prescott Farm had become somewhat unruly.

Susan Estabrook, master gardener project leader at Prescott Farm, says she and several other master gardener volunteers — all trained through the URI’s intensive program — saw the proposal as an opportunity to expand the group’s educational reach across the East Passage. “We were the first master gardener project on Aquidneck Island,” says Estabrook. “Now there are at least five, if not more.”

The gardeners’ initial face-to-face encounter with the plots that fall was eye-opening. After hours battling weeds and pulling haphazardly planted winter squash, the volunteers put on the brakes. In order to be most effective, the group knew a well-vetted plan was required. “That winter was key,” says Estabrook. “We spent the season meeting and designing a plan that was historically correct. The next spring, we started.”

Today the gardens are as much showpieces as the farm’s iconic windmill.

“Our garden is based on what a family would have had in 1750–1760,” explains Estabrook. Although early settlers wouldn’t have planted herbs and vegetables separately, the space available here allowed the gardeners that liberty. Visitors to the property first encounter the herb garden, which has been meticulously planned and restored under the lead of master gardener Johanna Becker. The plot features an amalgam of sixty medicinal, culinary, aromatic and dyeing herbs. “It is Colonial and native, but there are some outliers,” says Estabrook.

historical-gardens

Left: In the foreground, left to right: fennel herb, German chamomile, sage and clary sage bloom. Egyptian walking onions peek out from behind the German chamomile. Yellow calendula and light green lady’s mantle are visible behind the sage. In the back are red bee balm, monarda, dyer’s chamomile and sea lavender, among others. Right: Angelica, which produces tall round blossoms, is nestled in the far back corner flanked by comfrey on the left and lovage on the right. Visible behind the garden are the guard house, circa 1700s, and the Robert Sherman windmill, circa 1812.

Past the herb garden is the vegetable garden, where the emphasis is on storage vegetables such as potatoes, cabbages, turnips, parsnips and beets — in other words, she explains, “vegetables that would have sustained colonists over the winter.” All of the harvested produce is donated to Lucy’s Hearth, a women’s shelter on the island.

Around the vegetable plot, volunteer Kay Kosinski has planted flower beds with seeds ordered from Monticello. Included among Kosinski’s floral selections are Texas sage (“the hummingbirds adore it,” says Estabrook), butterfly weed, nigella, forget-me-nots, hollyhocks, black-eyed Susans and monarda.

Part of the master gardener mission is to be good stewards of the property. In that vein, and acting as partners of the NRF, the group has cleared invasives in other areas of the property, which has netted them additional space to plant. Last year, they planted a three sisters garden with Rhode Island white cap flint corn, cranberry pole beans, Haudenosaunee skunk beans and several varieties of squash including butternut, blue hubbard squash and Long Island cheese pumpkins.

“We are so fortunate that Doris Duke existed and preserved this property,” Estabrook says. “And then when you think that we’re growing vegetables and herbs in the same soil that colonists did? It’s a really good outdoor classroom for all ages.”

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