When volunteers putter under the hot sun in the garden of McFarland House, they are fulfilling a long-standing relationship with the Niagara Parks Commission that has worked well for more than 20 years.
The traditional kitchen garden visitors pass by along the path to the door of the Niagara River Parkway house, built in 1800, is developed in partnership with the Garden Club of Niagara, and planted and maintained by club volunteers.
Each spring, says Rebecca Pascoe, curator McFarland House, she meets with two members of the garden club to plan the garden for the coming season.
Many of the traditional plantings have been growing for decades and are cut back in the fall, and others, such as the herbs and vegetables, are planted in the spring, with some variation from year to year. Most are what would have been found in an English garden of the 1800s, she says.
All are used in the kitchen — chives in the cream cheese for cucumber sandwiches, and in the egg salad, which is a favourite on the menu. After all, says Pascoe, “who else makes home-made egg salad?”
All the traditional herbs found in an English garden — sage, thyme, rosemary and oregano and more, can be found growing outside the kitchen window of the historic McFarland House — will find their way into daily homemade soups on the menu, says Pascoe, as will the vegetables later in the summer. The healthy annual rhubarb crop is harvested to be baked in coffee cakes and pies.
From June to September, two Garden Club volunteers come once a week — 20 rotating throughout the season.
This year, Marla Percy and Faye Douglas are the two leads working with Niagara Parks, and Friday, it was Norma de Meel and Pam Willson taking their turn on maintenance duty.
“In the spring, we add mulch and top soil,” said de Meel.
“Some of the plants have been cut back but remain year after year, others are pulled out in the fall and replanted. Volunteers come weekly, some just once in the season and others more often, to weed, water, and deadhead.”
Whenever possible, plantings are the older varieties, sometimes from old seed, said de Meel, and all of the structures, such as the poles for the tomatoes and beans, are the same as would have been used more than 200 years ago.
In addition to herbs and vegetables, there are also some perennials that are ornamental now, but would have been used for medicinal purposes centuries ago, and other plants, such as milkweed, for butterflies and bees.
Hops grown along the fence are also ornamental — there’s no craft beer made at McFarland House these days, says Pascoe — but homesteaders would have grown hops and made beer in the 1800s.
Garden Club volunteers also decorate McFarland House at Christmas for the Rotary Club house tour, and fund scholarships each year for Niagara Parks’ School of Horticulture students.
The club was formed in 1995, and has been working with Niagara Parks ever since. A formalized agreement between the two was forged in 1998, says Pascoe, which allows the club to use the School of Horticulture for its monthly meetings.
“It’s a really great communal relationship. The volunteers are very much appreciated, and there’s so much we couldn’t do without this wonderful partnership. The Garden Club volunteers are very generous with their time and effort.”
But more than that, adds Pascoe, emotion evident in her voice, “they are a great group of really lovely ladies. I have got to know a lot of them, and built relationships that are very valuable. I admire them more than I can put into words. I wish those in other organizations could see the benefits of such a great partnership. It sounds silly, but it really warms my heart to think about them and all they do.”