By Margaret Osborne
Walking through Rachel’s Garden, an 18th century garden at the historic Mulford Farm, Leslie Clarke of the Garden Club of East Hampton talked about the plant species and how colonists would have used them centuries ago.
“Valerian, this is another really important 18th century medicinal plant,” she said, pointing to a plant with small white flowers. “It was widely used to treat everything. That’s why it got its common name ‘heal-all.’”
Filled with medicinal plants, herbs and flowers, Rachel’s Garden is an “idealized” version of what was planted in East Hampton gardens 300 years ago, Clarke said.
Rachel’s Garden is part of Mulford Farm, a colonial farmstead owned by the East Hampton Historical Society. Built in 1680, the farmstead house has mostly been unchanged since 1760 and remained in the Mulford family for most of its life. The farm is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Rachel, the wife of David Mulford, who owned the farm in 1790, is the namesake for the garden.
Though no records of Rachel’s Garden exist, the Garden Club and the Historical Society partnered to create a garden that is both beautiful and historical. They knew a garden must have existed because the area was a farmstead but didn’t know where it was planted.
“When the Garden Club decided to help with the garden, we really just imagined what the wife of this colonial gentleman would have planted,” Clarke said.
All of the plants growing were carefully researched to confirm their colonial purpose. The garden provides a snapshot of the past and insight into historic trends and traditions: some plants were used for seasoning, household cleaning, warding away pests and some were used as cut flowers.
The garden lies in front of an old-fashioned windmill. Behind it grow apple trees, which Clarke said would have been used to make cider. Hops and grapevines adorn the two garden entryways and garden beds are separated with a gravel path. Inside, flowers of all colors are in full bloom; many different species grow next to each other, creating a feeling of controlled wildness.
“I don’t want it to look manicured,” Clarke said. “[Rachel] wouldn’t have had a landscaper or anything, so there’s a kind of unruliness about it.”
Though the club aimed to keep the garden authentic to its time, some of the plants used in the 18th century were invasive species, Clarke said. Instead of growing potentially harmful plants in the garden, the club planted within the same genus.
It took a lot of research to figure out which plants would have been used during that time, said Clarke. One thing the club looked at was invoices from gardeners in the area as well as from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Though they lived further south, the plants they ordered came from a western Long Island nursery called “Linnaean Gardens,” owned by a French Huguenot family. Clarke said such records are available online on the Gutenberg Project.
“They kept excellent records of what they planted every year, how well it did the next year and so forth,” she said of the gardeners. The club could examine scanned copies of invoices and other records online. In 1767, for example, Jefferson referred to poppies growing in his garden, according to documents provided by Clarke. The club also combed through records from libraries to find plants.
The garden was originally planted as a “kitchen garden” — only plants that would have been used in the kitchen. Richard Barons, the chief curator for the historical society, estimated that it was planted 20 to 25 years ago.
About 10 years ago, Clarke helped transform it into a “dooryard garden.” She said the club wanted to add flowers for aesthetic purposes: visitors come from all over during the summer and adding flowers increase its beauty. Thus, it was renamed a “dooryard garden.” Clarke said the historical society had found broken vase pieces on the grounds, indicating that the family grew flowers.
Also found in the garden is a “shipwreck rose.” In the 1800s, a ship carrying landscape plants from France wrecked near Mecox Bay.
“When the ship went down, all these things started floating ashore, and a lot of the locals around went and grabbed them” and spread around cuttings of the plant, Clarke said.
The Garden Club manages several other gardens in the area, including the Mary Nimmo Moran Garden on Main Street, and the Brick Courtyard Garden at the East Hampton Library.
“It’s a gift to the community,” Clarke said.