For over a decade, Jenny Lamb, Director of Interpretation and Education at the Belle Meade Plantation, has overseen the Harding Kitchen Garden, a complement to the log cabin where John Harding began his horseracing endeavors. Two years ago, Jenny was inspired to pair the Weedin' Women and Warriors of the Davidson County Master Gardeners with gardening research gleaned from the 1850s. Harding family letters and ledgers, the Tennessee state archives, and neighbors like the Hermitage shed light on the nineteenth-century plantings that would have graced the Belle Meade Plantation vegetable garden.
Still, it took fortunate leadership in the shape of Project Chair Muff Cline to give the enterprise heft, as she is good humored and ambitious for the living food history required in a full plantation tour. "It's a wonderful collaboration-each volunteer brings a particular talent," says Muff.
The garden plot is quaintly ordered and fenced in the slatted style of the day. "We're running wire at the base to end the bunny buffet," says Muff. Wooden spoons are staked and scripted with the plant names of many vegetables still eaten today-beans, corn, onions, okra, and tomatoes.
Medicinal plants such as pennyroyal for indigestion and lamb's ear for bandages reflect times gone by. Sacrificial flowers like hollyhocks and marigolds keep the insects at bay, with the exception of constant bee pollination supplied by the Belle Meade Plantation hives. The plant soil is nourished by, what else, but a nearby reserve of horse manure.
Once a week, beginning at 7:30 a.m. in the heat and 10:00 a.m. in the cool, the Weedin' Women and Warriors can be found working their daily plan, created during their last gathering. "We have learned a lot by process of elimination and trial and error," says Muff.
A team spirit prevails during planning sessions. "If we have a difference of opinion, we take a vote," Muff says. Camaraderie is ensured by frequent get-togethers involving food and work breaks taken on the steps of the Harding cabin.
As an ultimate outcome of harvest, the group is known for hands-on demonstrations with schoolchildren, introducing on site a stir-fry of something never tried before.
Pleased with the results of her overarching strategy, Jenny says, "Because of the Weedin' Women and Warriors, the Harding Kitchen Garden spans all four seasons. Muff is on it." Then she adds, "Next week, we'll oil the spoons with linseed and cut the catnip and the garlic chive blossoms."