Dedicated in August of 1976, the Allis-Bushnell House herb garden includes culinary and medicinal herbs commonly used in households of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The garden has two aims: First, it creates a place of respite for our visitors, and second, it completes a scene appropriate for a domestic landscape of the period of the Nathan and Chloe Scranton Bushnell household (from 1825 to 1873).
Incorporated into the grounds by the Garden Club of Madison after a major improvement of the Allis-Bushnell House in 1975, the garden offers a peaceful setting for contemplation in the midst of the historic village district. Financed by means of a raffle of a needlepoint rug made by club members, the herb garden has oyster-shell paths and raised beds laid out in a traditional, symmetrical pattern. A sundial stands at the center, and benches at the perimeter invite visitors to relax throughout the year.
Our garden was planned as a representation of what might have been planted by a typical householder during the 1700s and 1800s: the plant selection was not based on historical documentation of the plants cultivated by particular historic people who actually lived in the Allis or Bushnell households. Nevertheless, each of the herbs was carefully chosen to reflect the plants that were likely to be found in a domestic culinary and medicinal garden in a village setting—as opposed, for instance, to the plants that may have been found in a larger and less formal rural vegetable patch. Plants used for fragrance and for textile dyes are also included in the scheme.
At some future point in the interpretation of the house, it is possible that the garden could be altered to reflect documentation of plant life that may survive from people who actually lived in the house or in the neighborhood. Diaries, accounting ledgers (which may reveal seed purchases), and sometimes even letters can provide firsthand evidence of an actual historic garden plan. For now, we rely simply on the fact that most households kept kitchen and/or ornamental gardens with similar common and easy-to-cultivate plants.
As the Garden Club chose the plants and planned the design, they enlisted the guidance of Rudy Favretti, a landscape architect whose name is synonymous with historical plants and gardens. Born in 1932 in Mystic, Connecticut, Favretti was professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Connecticut from 1955 until 1989; he was a member of such professional societies as the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Connecticut Horticultural Society, the American Horticultural Society, the American Garden History Society, and the New England Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.
The English-style knot design Favretti created is probably more formal than any garden that might have been on this property in the nineteenth century, but it does seem fitting for the space: a tiny pocket of beauty and solitude at the edge of our quarter-acre back lawn. One of the few “green” areas remaining in the downtown village district, its beds are enclosed by borders of hardy ornamental perennials, such as roses and boxwood, which provide form and structure. In the beds are herbaceous plants described for household uses in many New England gardens. Among those plants are foxglove, lavender, sage, hyssop, rosemary, oregano, thyme, rue, tarragon, fennel, betony, wormwood, heliotrope, geranium, tansy, chamomile, comfrey, santolina, catmint, teasel, chive, bee balm, love-in-a-mist, lamb’s-ears, parsley, savory, and strawberry.
Many historical sources—from seed catalogues to books and magazines on garden design and horticulture—support the fact that garden spaces were extensions of the household, and that even village households kept such beds. It is documented, for example, that Chloe Scranton Bushnell kept a beautiful flower garden in the lot to the east of the house. It is important to keep in mind that at the time of Chloe’s use of this property, the Bushnell homelot was many acres greater in size than it is today and that extensive plots of other crops were once planted within view of the dooryard.
Since 1975, the Garden Club of Madison has taken all financial and physical responsibility for the maintenance of the garden. Now, in the summer of 2019, they have graciously ceded the care of the garden back to the MHS, as the Society plans a transformative rehabilitation of the entire landscape, to be implemented this fall and next spring.
The garden is accessible to visitors throughout the year from dawn to dusk.
On the topic of gardens, gardening, and the culinary and medicinal uses of herbs in the early American experience, researchers may enjoy the following books, which can be found on line or in reprinted editions:
Breck, Joseph. The Young Florist, or Conversations on the Culture of Flowers and on Natural History. Boston: Russell, Odiorne, & Co., 1833 (reprint: Opus Publications, Guilford, Connecticut, 1988).
Bridgeman, Thomas. The Young Gardener's Assistant. New York: Booth & Smith, fourth edition, 1833.
Favretti, Rudy J. Early New England Gardens: 1620—1840. Sturbridge, MA.: Old Sturbridge Village, 1974.
Favretti, Rudy J. and Joy P. Favretti. For Every House a Garden: A Guide for Reproducing Period Gardens. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1990.
Favretti, Rudy J. and Gordon P. DeWolf. Colonial Gardens. Barre, MA.: Barre Publishers, 1964.
Favretti, Rudy J. and Joy Putnam Favretti. Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings: A Handbook for Reproducing and Creating Authentic Landscape Settings, 2nd edition. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 1997.
Punch, Walter T. ed. Keeping Eden: A History of Gardening in America. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992.