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The Kitchen Gardens of the Mistress of Riversdale

Today’s organic methods were the only options for gardeners in the early 19th century

We had a storm and terrible rain this week … my garden almost washed away; a dozen tulips were washed out of the ground and carried outside the garden fence. No one has seen such a flood in 10 years.
    Any Maryland gardener could have written a similar lament. This writer was Rosalie Stier Calvert describing the plight of her garden at Riversdale in 1804. Like all optimistic gardeners, Rosalie was later to boast about her beautiful replenished bulb collection, only to find many of the imports from Belgium were missing — “eaten by moles!”
    Rosalie Calvert’s garden was a grace note to the grand house begun in 1801 by her father Henri Joseph Stier, a wealthy Flemish émigré, financier and art collector. At its zenith, the 2,000-acre plantation included rolling grain fields, orchards and forest. The gardener, whose home Riversdale became, wed George Calvert, planter, state legislator and descendent of the Lords Baltimore. The kitchen garden itself was about 4.5 acres, enclosed by an eight-foot brick wall and chestnut paling fence.

Rosalie Stier Calvert and daughter Carolina Maria painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1804.

    A fine kitchen garden still grows at the present Riversdale House Museum in the Prince George’s County town of Riverdale Park. Today Riversdale has shrunk to seven acres, less than a city block. A half-acre microcosm of Rosalie’s garden of 200 years ago is bursting with a succession of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers at this time of year.
    Walk in to travel back in time while imagining the immediate restoration of your own humbled garden. Grass paths divide eight garden squares, each 26 by 26 feet. Laid in geometric patterns with oyster-shell paths, the most formal squares are intensely planted for the Calvert family table. Spring sweet peas on trellises, plus tender baby beets and tasty small greens are replaced by colorful summer eggplants, peppers and beans.
    Two garden squares less formal, feature perennials such as asparagus, strawberries, bulbs and roses. Cardoons and artichokes are sure to impress.
    The remaining beds are plantation corn, tobacco, grains and space-needy vegetables. Pollinators buzz among tomatoe and squash. Cover crops are planted in the fall to preserve and enrich the soil.
    The adjacent orchard of pears, plums and tart cherries is bordered by a Virginia rail or zigzag fence, almost obscured by currants, gooseberries, raspberries, figs and more. Purple martin gourdhouses invite these insect-eaters to help control pests.
    What we know today as organic methods and heirloom varieties were the only options for avid gardeners like Rosalie in the early 19th century. These same practices — crop rotation, organic amendments and winter cover crops — now produce an abundant modern harvest. Kitchen Guild volunteers put the harvest to work in period recipes such as lip-smacking Green Tomato Marmalade.
    This 20th century miniature of Rosalie Calvert’s garden grows from her correspondence between 1803 and 1821, published in Mistress of Riversdale, edited by Margaret Law Calcott. The letters offered insight to plantation and family life, the gardens and social and political issues of the era.
    Rosalie’s garden evolved in reflection of her times. She was forever looking for the latest plant varieties and garden practices as well as familiar ones from Europe, along with native species and local methods. For instance, she learned to protect her prized flower bulbs from the depredations of beasts and floods by covering them with tobacco stalks in winter.
    Today’s garden interprets the early 19th century garden in both historic accuracy and inevitable metamorphosis. As any gardener of any era can attest, our gardens are living, growing and constantly evolving creations, adapting to changes in climate, research and discovery.

    Riversdale House Museum: grounds and garden open daily until dusk, Visitor Center M-F 9am-5pm, tour and event listings online:
    Free Summer on the Lawn jazz concert, 7pm, July 5; Shakespeare in the Park’s As You Like It, 7pm, July 19.