Oh, Wilton Historical Society, how does your garden grow?

Why, colonially, of course!

The Wilton Historical Society is celebrating its newly rejuvenated 1740 Colonial Herb Garden, which was restored over three growing seasons by master gardeners as a community service project. To toast the new garden, the Society is inviting the public to a Wine and Cheese in the garden on Thursday, July 17 from 4-7 p.m..

The colonial herb garden at the Betts House, splashed with color and fragrant with lavender and thyme, is now at its summer best. The garden, divided into sections for dyeing, potpourri, culinary, and medicinal herbs, is looking refreshed after an update to make it historically accurate to the year 1740. The event will allow visitors to see the garden while sipping wine and to chat with knowledgeable docents.

Master Gardeners from the Fairfield County Agricultural Extension Center, with the assistance of Master Gardener interns, have been refurbishing the herb garden beside the historic Betts-Sturgis-Blackmar house, built on its current site circa 1740. With the goal of making the garden more historically accurate and useful to the Society as an educational opportunity, the group has been working on the garden for three growing seasons.

Jackie Algon, Master Gardener and a volunteer at the Society, came up with the idea of renovating the existing herb garden. In her position as coordinator at the Bethel site of the Fairfield County Agricultural Center, she was looking for projects to match to Master Gardener interns. In order to complete the certification process, Master Gardener interns must put in 30 hours of public service in gardens. The group began by identifying existing plants, researching which plants were likely to be found in a 1740 household herb garden, removing “non-historical” species and selecting and planting appropriate types. The group also thoroughly documented the renovation process, and developed a printed guide to the garden, as well as permanent markers.

Project leaders include Master Gardeners Tom McGregor, Esther Johnston, Diana Abshire, Rosemary Volpe and Jackie Algon. Many of the Master Gardeners who began working on the project as interns have stayed long enough to “graduate” to Master Gardener. As the project evolved, Master Gardeners and interns from the Bartlett Arboretum and Garden site of the Fairfield County Agricultural Center have also become collaborators.

Some of the interesting plants that can be seen in the garden include Penny Royal (Mentha pulegium), a mint flavoring for soup; Rue (Ruta graveolens) for joint stiffness; Skirret (Sium sisarum), a flavoring for stews; and Wrinkled Rose (Rosa rugosa ‘rubra’), which provides Vitamin C to prevent scurvy.

The story of the garden began years earlier. In spring 2002, Carol Russell, now an Emeritus Trustee of the Society, was determined to have an attractive garden next to the Betts House in time for the town of Wilton’s Bicentennial celebrations. An October house tour and flower show “From Colonial to Castle” was organized by the Wilton Garden Club, the Wilton Woman’s Club and the Encore Club. The Betts House was selected as one of the stops.

“We had to spruce up the entrance area to the Betts House,” recalls Carol. “It was quite a project.” As she and her committee, including Pat and John Curran and Kate Gluckin, began to dig out the stubborn drifts of Siberian Iris, bricks began to emerge from the soil. Eventually a pattern of brick paths forming three graceful ovals was discovered, and parsley and chives as well. Carol speculates that it may have been an old herb garden from the 1960s or 1970s established by Mr. Blackmar when he used the house as an antiques shop, prior to the site going to the Society in 1989.

With the bones of the garden revealed, it was decided the renovated garden would be planted with herbs. The ovals were assigned plant types – one for potpourri, one for medicinal, and one for culinary herbs, as they are now. Later, another section was added near the birdbath, for plants used by dyers.

The Society and the Master Gardeners welcome any and all volunteers who would like to be part of the effort to maintain and sustain the colonial herb garden. Please contact the Society at 203.762.7657 to become involved.