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Shaker Herb Garden

by Carole McCray

A religious sect known for their simple approach to life, the Shakers are often remembered for their ingenious furniture design. However, their greatest achievement was in gardening which developed into a successful enterprise by growing, processing, packaging, and selling vegetable seeds and medicinal herbs to physicians and apothecaries nationwide. Two centuries ago their practical views on gardening stressed qualities that gardeners still value today—simplicity, order, purpose, and beauty. A Shaker herb garden can be created by following some Shaker guidelines:


Choose a site. A level spot with a southern or southeastern exposure is ideal. Locate near the kitchen for handy tending and using herbs.

Garden with good soil. Different soils require different mixtures of compost. Loose soil requires heavy compost. Clay soil requires light compost such as lime and horse manure. In 1835 Charles Crossman wrote The Gardener’s Manual, published by the Shakers at New Lebanon, N.Y., and stated, "Deep, dry, light, and rich, are the essential requisites of a good garden soil; and if not so naturally, it should be made so." Priced at six cents, the booklet educated American gardeners about the practical aspects of gardening.

Sow seeds. Seeds can be sowed after the soil has warmed and the danger of frost has passed. Never plant too deeply. Cover seeds with the best layer of soil possible. Keep seeds watered to encourage germination.

Neatness prevails. According to Crossman’s pamphlet, the Shakers compared the garden to "an index of the owner’s mind," and suggested gardens be neat and tidy; plant rows straight and beds square. Today’s gardens with intermingling plants randomly planted would be considered by the Shakers as creations of a lazy, complacent gardener. Garden rows were parallel and straight, plants were spaced out in orderly fashion, and weeds were not allowed. To capture the fastidious appearance found in Shaker gardens, a brick edging, a low stone wall enclosure, or a picket fence can complement the garden.

Remove weeds. The Shakers compared the cultivation of a garden to the cultivation of the mind, so it is no surprise that they considered weeding a metaphor for spiritual cleansing—removing weeds was like removing impure thoughts; cleanliness was next to godliness. Today mulch is a good weed controller. The Shakers used mulch only as winter protection and considered it unpure refuse placed upon pure, bare soil.

Keep annual records. Begin a garden journal in the spring. Note annual occurrences in your area--when particular birds arrive, when others depart; the flowering and leafing of trees and shrubs. These happenings can serve as an indirect measure of outdoor temperature. Keeping planting and harvesting records were part of the Shaker belief in order. Records remove guesswork and serve as references for timing garden tasks throughout the seasons.

Visit your Growise Center for additional advice and great plant selections.


SAGE--(Salvia officinalis) perennial; gray-green leaves; early summertime purple flowers. Pleasantly bitter-lemon flavor; seasoning for soups, stews, meat dishes. Shakers dried leaves for medicinal remedies for cold, cough, or fever.

SUMMER SAVORY--(Satureja hortensis) known as the bean herb; annual; slender purplish-green leaves.

SWEET MARJORAM—(Origanum majorana) tender perennial; knotlike shape before blossoming in pink or white. Resembles mild oregano flavor.

THYME—(Thymus vulgaris)—hardy perennial, bushy low grower; hint of clove taste; mauve flowers. Flavor meat dishes, stocks, breads, vegetables; popular French cuisine herb.

BEE BALM—(Monarda didyma) or Oswego tea--perennial flower in pink, purple, crimson salmon, and white. Pungent mint leaves garnish punches, iced teas, and fruit.

LEMON BALM—(Melissa officinalis) lemon-scented perennial; makes soothing tea hot or cold. Shakers used it to relieve fevers.

ROSES—(Rosa gallica ‘Oficinalis’) apothecary rose and (R. damascena) damask rose were grown by Shakers for fragrant petals distilled to produce rose water; lovely even as perfume and flavoring.

CULINARY SEED HERBS—dill, fennel, coriander, and caraway were used for digestive ailments. Fragrant foliage and tasty seeds are benefits of seed herbs.

Visit your local Growise Center for gardening tips and herbs to plant in your Shaker herb garden. Create a Shaker garden and you will be reminded of a well-known Shaker adage, "If you would have a lovely garden, you should live a lovely life."

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