The Moravian town of Salem, now referred to as Old Salem, lays just outside the outskirts of the busy city of Winston-Salem, NC. While most people enjoy visiting this quaint museum town simply for its historical buildings and Moravian heritage, there is another reason to come here-the gardens. In Old Salem, every house had a garden, and everything grown had a reason for being there. All of Salem’s gardens, today, have been recreated on their original sites, targeting the specific time period; for instance, the Miksch Garden at the Single Brothers’ House. As a result, Old Salem is considered to be one of the most authentic restorations in the U.S.
Just as the buildings have been reconstructed to this era of time, so have the beautiful gardens of Salem. The landscape surrounding this town have been carefully researched and recreated to mimic life according to the German culture of these people. Here you will find growing together in perfect garden squares a variety of ‘heirloom’ vegetables, herbs, and ornamental flowers, all retaining blissful harmony with one another. An array of fruit trees can be found growing within orchards and family gardens. The gardens of Salem provide additional interest in the sections of split-rail board fencing, or my favorite, the snake-rail fencing that borders much of the landscape, outlining original property lines. Along the streets are native trees, such as Red Maples, replanted to imitate its history, which is deeply rooted in local Moravian tradition.
Just as the Moravians created beautiful, yet, functional gardens to satisfy their ‘Old World’ aesthetics, so do the Salem gardeners today. Plant materials are restricted to only those that were known to be in cultivation during the particular time period, typically, before 1850. During this period of time, people relied heavily on their gardens for food, medicine, and crafting. Therefore, nearly every house and every family had and maintained a garden. Most of these were comprised of long, narrow lots enclosed by fences; the gardens at the rear of the property.
Family gardens commonly grew both vegetables and ornamental plants together. The garden itself was usually fenced off at the back of the lot and layouts were designed as garden squares or rectangular plots. These were surrounded by grassy, bark, or bare dirt paths. A wider central path may have been used for employing a wagon or cart through the garden. Gardens that existed on sloped landscapes were often terraced and reinforced with stone and sod.
Terraced gardens usually contained a couple garden squares with narrow border beds outside of the garden and against fences. Also found growing along property lines at the rear of the garden stood fruit trees like apple and cherry. In addition to these family gardens, residents often obtained and managed small tracts of land for livestock or for growing field crops such as wheat or potatoes. These were generally located at the edge of town. Some gardens were even grown strictly for pleasure. For instance, the Single Sisters once maintained a large garden, but this was eventually reduced to a succession of small garden squares behind the house, each sister with a garden of her own. Here one would grow mostly ornamental plantings such as cockscomb, larkspur, daffodils, coreopsis, lilac, and hyacinths.
The Leinbach Garden is a fine example of the family garden at that time. Located and recreated along Salt Street in Old Salem, the garden of John Henry Leinbach, the town’s shoemaker, accurately reflects the style and materials seen in backyard gardens before the mid-nineteenth century. Enclosed by a fence, the Leinbach Garden, which depicts the year 1822, consists of six garden squares with fruit trees and border beds along the sides.
The rear of the garden is sloped; therefore, three of its garden squares are terraced with stone and sod. Within the spring garden is a multitude of vegetables such as lettuce, peas, carrots, onions, and cabbage followed by summer crops like beans, squash, melons, and peppers. All the varieties used here are ‘heirloom’ and not commonly found today. Antique variety herbs are present within the garden as well, intermingled with vegetable plantings. Herbs were often used for both seasoning and medicinal purposes. A wealth of ornamental plantings common to the period is also included within the garden.
Other gardens of interest include the Cape Fear Bank Garden (serving the banker and his family), the Levering and Schroeter Gardens (belonging to Salem’s tailors), the Triebel and Miksch Gardens, the Vogler Garden, and the Vierling Garden (the town’s doctor). The Salem Tavern also maintained a vast vegetable garden, but within the center of the garden was another point of interest, a careful planting of Cedars forming a circle and ‘chained together’ at the tops to create an arbor. The tavern operated as a hotel during the Civil War, and it was here that many of the guests enjoyed sitting. Today a costumed staff serves lunch and dinner throughout the week to visitors of the museum. Salem Square reflects a variety of landscape features common to the time period between as well, such as perimeter plantings like Sycamores and Tulip Poplars. There is a Cedar circle in the center of the Square surrounded with post and board style fencing.
Old Salem has one of the leading horticultural restoration programs in the country, and as a result, Old Salem’s garden history still flourishes today. It can be seen as you walk along its streets, found in the numerous roadside plantings of native trees and shrubs, like towering Magnolias and Carolina Alspice. It can be viewed in the old-time orchards containing pear trees and cherries. It can be found in the recreated family gardens overflowing with heirloom vegetables, herbs, and ornamental favorites like hollyhocks and antique roses. Its rich history can also be found in the field crops of cotton, flax, and tobacco, all of which are used in hands-on demonstrations of old world techniques for spinning and tobacco processing.
The gardens of Old Salem are maintained by a staff of knowledgeable gardeners specializing in historical methods of cultivation. Only plants found growing during a particular time are represented within each garden. You’ll find no chemicals used within these natural gardens. Instead, composting plays a significant role, with regular applications. Most of the plants are grown from seed that is collected each growing season, many of which are sown directly into garden beds. Much of the produce within the gardens of Old Salem is used in cooking demonstrations for visitors with the remaining crops dried, pickled, or stored within root cellars. Just as with the Moravians of this time in history, nothing within these gardens is wasted.
Even such crops as wheat, cotton, and flax are used. The success of Old Salem’s gardens relies heavily on the meticulous maintenance and thorough research of its restorative staff. The natural beauty found in the gardens of Old Salem not only provides interest to visitors year round but offers an inside glimpse into the simple lives of the local area’s founding fathers and a community of individuals that took pride in the natural resources available to them.
I was lucky enough to have grown up in Winston-Salem, where school field trips to Old Salem are quite commonplace. However, it wasn’t until my mother began working there as one of the costumed interpreters that I got a chance to fully appreciate the town’s historical value and beauty. I was even fortunate to have participated in ‘dressing the part’ one year where I walked the streets talking to visitors. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Grab a camera and see for yourself by visiting the amazing historical town of Old Salem and its beautiful gardens.