5 questions for...Whitney Vose, Ogden House Kitchen Garden docent
FAIRFIELD — The Ogden House will feature its revamped Colonial Kitchen Garden and beehives later this month, thanks in part to Fairfield Garden Club member Whitney Vose.
Vose, an expert grower and avid colonial plant enthusiast, serves as the docent for the Ogden House Kitchen Garden. She helped guide club members to bring the garden back to life beginning in 2011. Newly renovated this year, the kitchen garden has over 60 culinary, household, and medicinal plants dating back to the colonial period. The design and plan is faithful to what Jane Ogden, the home’s original tenant, might have had in her kitchen.
Garden Club members also produce Ogden House honey, which is sold in the Fairfield Museum and History Center’s gift shop. The Ogden House is owned by the museum, but the garden club has maintained the garden since 1935. The house and garden are open to the public Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. from June 11 to Sept. 24.
Sept. 24, from 1-4 p.m.
Garden tours will feature a discussion of the relationship of the bees to the ollinator plants in the herb garden as the colonists did from the 1600s until the middle of the 19th century. The talks will stress the importance of this practice today.
Learn how to make herbal wreaths.
Sample foods made with the local honey harvested from the hives located at the entrance to the Oaklawn Cemetery.
Q: How important were bees to a Colonial garden?
A: Honeybees were so important to the colonists that they brought them over from Europe on ships similar to the Mayflower. Although there are over 4,000 different kinds of bees, the honey bee is not native to America. The colonists brought them to the New World to pollinate apple trees, which were also brought over from Europe, to make cider. In colonial days, most of the available water was not potable, so the colonists drank beer, rum and cider.
The bees made their trans-Atlantic crossing in bee skeps, which look like upside down straw baskets. These skeps contained a queen bee and a hive of worker bees and drones .The skeps were strapped on a board and put in a chest at the stern of a ship.
In addition to harvesting the bees’ honey, the colonists used beeswax to make candles, which was better than burning whale oil or bear fat, both of which were smelly and smoky. Beeswax was also used for waterproofing leather and binding wounds. It was so valuable that it was often used in place of hard-to-find currency in some remote towns.
Today, honey bees are no longer kept in bee skeps. They are housed in modular hives where the beekeeper can harvest the honey without harming the bees. While we have replicas of old fashioned bee skeps in the colonial garden at Ogden House, our bees live in modern hives in Oak Lawn Cemetery.
Q: What did they use the honey for?
A: The colonists used honey for medicinal, culinary, and household purposes. Medicinally, honey was used in combination with many herbs and applied to open wounds to prevent infection. We all know that honey is a wonderful sweetener, and for the colonists, it also provided an instant energy source. It was also used as a preservative for ham and fruits.
Q: How many hives would the typical colonist have?
A: Not every colonist had hives, but if they did, they would ideally have at least one or two that lasted over the winter.
During the winter months, the housewife and children would make bee skeps from corn stalks tied together with hemp. In the spring, they would place their new skeps next to the winter skeps under a covered area near the garden in hopes that the hives would grow too large in their existing skeps and the queen would move half of her hive into the new skep to start a new colony. The worker bees remaining in the old hive would then produce a new queen.
At the end of the fall, the colonists would kill all but two hives to gather the honey and beeswax. In some towns there was a community apiary with a specified beekeeper managing the hives.
Q: What plants would one typically find in a Colonial kitchen garden?
A: The kitchen garden was the colonial housewife’s grocery store and pharmacy. She had to feed her family from the garden for dinner that night, the next night, and so on, and provide enough surplus produce to take care of her family’s culinary, household, and medicinal needs over the coming winter.
You’d typically find vegetables, fruits, and special plants that had a particular use — herbs — in colonial gardens. The vegetables would be carrots, spinach, beets, beans, leeks, onions, and cabbage. There would be fruits such as gooseberries and red currants, and an orchard close by with apples, pears and plums.
For medicinal use, there would be herbs such as pot marigold for making an ointment for skin wounds and ulcers, feverfew for head and body aches, and mint for nausea, sinus congestion and cramps.
For the bees, the colonists would plant bee balm, which was also used for tea, especially after the Boston Tea Party stopped the importation of English tea. The leaves of lemon balm were rubbed inside new bee skeps to attract bees. Balm is the Greek word for bee.
If you want to help bees today, planting bee balm, lemon balm, and anise hyssop offer a good source of pollen and nectar for honey bees.
Q: Do you keep bees yourself, and what do you have growing in your garden?
A: I have a shade garden where I grow native plants such as mountain mint, which all bees adore, and Indian pink, which feeds the hummingbirds.
My bees are the Ogden House honey bees at Oak Lawn and they keep me busy as a bee, pardon the pun.