Spring is in bloom around Locust Grove, and with that comes a very special anniversary. Locust Grove isn’t just known for the historic house and the people who lived there–we also have 55 beautiful acres that are lovingly cared for by our wonderful gardener, Sarah S.. Today, March 17 is Sarah’s 15th anniversary at Historic Locust Grove! Thanks to her, our gardens flourish, our Hemp Program is full of promise, and the occasional chicken pays us a visit. Sarah is originally from Ohio, and earned an Art History degree from Berea College before getting into gardening. She is notoriously attention-shy, but she graciously agreed to answer a few questions before donning her bandanna and heading back outside.
How did you become involved at Locust Grove?
Little known fact: I came here with the Little Loomhouse (where I was a volunteer) to help set up (put threads on) the jack loom which used to be in the girl’s bedroom. A few years later, after I got into gardening, I saw an ad for Locust Grove in the paper, looking for a gardener…
What is your goal for the gardens at Locust Grove?
Besides eradicating all weeds? I would like to have a more agricultural setting for the site. This was a farm, first and foremost. If we’re going to track down the exact shade of verdigris for the farm office, or the correctly dated piece of furniture for the parlor, the same effort should go into the plantings and grounds to fully restore the grounds of Locust Grove.
How did you become interested in historic gardens?
I was already gardening using modern methods and plants, but I developed an early interest in heirlooms through my father. When I saw the job listed, I saw it as a chance to unite my love of gardening with my researching skills from my art history degree. Did you know the plants, nuts, flowers, fruits and trees artists put in paintings can tell you so much about the painting and the people of that time?
What are the resources you use for the LG garden and grounds?
I’m still Luddite enough to use books! Ones written now, by such authors as William Woys Weaver and Peter Hatch, as well as books written in that time period. I also enjoy digging into an old garden diary on a rainy day! I have contacts at other historic sites, where I can ask those “what do you do when…” kinds of questions. For plant material, I am a member of the Seed Saver’s Exchange and swap material all around the country! And of course there’s the internet, but as always “trust but verify” applies to online searches.
What does your typical day look like in each season?
Winter is a lot of cleaning and “house chores”. Towards the end of winter I begin gathering seeds, soil, tuning up equipment, potting figs, making seed packets, and doing early pruning.
Spring sees a lot of pruning, tilling and planting, orchard work, and the start of weeding.
Summer – watering and weeding, weeding and watering… and tidying up after weddings!
Fall is when I begin gathering seeds, digging up tubers for overwintering, putting beds to rest – but still weeding.
There’s so much that isn’t “typical”, like decorating for Christmastide, schlepping books, the Gardener’s Fair booth, moving split rail, setting up and cleaning up after events, mucking out the springhouse, spraying yellow jackets, etc…
What is your favorite time of year at LG and why?
There are a few days in early spring where you can see, from one day to the next, the hillside by the barn green up vividly, then suddenly the henbit blossoms and the slope is a riot of emerald and burgundy-pink!
What are some of the challenges of your job?
Deer–destructive and vexing. I find the visiting public (and neighbors) a blessing and a curse. We need them, or why else would we exist? But they really tear the place up, driving 4-runners up the creek, dumping Christmas trees and yard waste at the property edges, taking axes to the trees, emptying hot pans of food or coolers full of ice into the beds, driving EVERYWHERE, putting nails into the trees and broken glass in the mulch, making paths through the beds at will, trash in the shrubbery, bongs in the woods….aargh!!!
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love our volunteers! They’re just the nicest people you could ever meet and I get to see them every day I come to work – what a blessing!
How did you become involved in the hemp program?
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is hoping to revive our hemp industry and is expediting the revival by encouraging farmers and research institutions to grow hemp using industrial (as opposed to hobbyist) methods. It’s a tightly-controlled, by-permit-only process where detailed notes are kept and reported back to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. This information is then compiled and data extracted. The theory is that eventually we will have a crowd-sourced knowledge of how best to grow and process hemp in Kentucky.
The program had run for one year (2014), and while I was interested, I was put off by the “industrial” label attached to it. I just didn’t think our historic site was what they were looking for, but rather big farms growing acres and doing serious research. When the applications went out for 2015 Carol encouraged me to try, because, after all, the worst that could happen is they’d say “no”. I was very surprised, but also very happy, when we got it!
How can others recreate historic gardens in their own backyards? Is it even possible?
Oooh, that’s a big question. Yes, BUT… it has to be specific to your area and climate. As much as I love old-school English cutting gardens, for example, our climate will not support some of those cool weather/moisture loving plants. Also, I am a firm believer our climate is not what it was 200 years ago, and plants the Crogans and other locals apparently grew with ease really struggle in the extreme heat and drought of our summers and the Polar Vortex of winter, which are our new normal. It takes a lot of poking around and asking to find heirlooms that will work, but so worth it.
What do you wish more people knew about historic gardens?
If we don’t plant them, old varieties are gone forever. Why should we care? Because we still need that biodiversity and may need to call on it one day to save the species. For example, for the last 40 years the Cavendish has been the one and only banana variety in our grocery stores, but it is now being wiped out by a very specialized disease. Scientists are racing to develop a new banana using old landrace banana varieties scattered throughout the world. Historic gardens are a joy to look at, hopefully beautiful and informative, but they also serve the serious purpose of protecting genetic biodiversity!
Anything else you think people should know?
The quads, 4 cutting beds, all around the buildings, the parking island, the herb garden – all areas which need to be kept weeded. This is a lot of real estate for one person to keep weeded, and I’m not even full time! Throw in all the events, planting, research, pruning, “other tasks as assigned”, and keeping Locust Grove looking tidy is pretty daunting! I could use help keeping the weeds at bay, so if you have a few hours a month or a grandchild you can bribe into it, bring it on!
In addition to being a master gardener, Sarah is also available for children’s parties and Bat Mitzvahs. Locust Grove wouldn’t be the same place without her! Thank you for all of your work over the past 15 years, Sarah! Here’s to 15 more!