Old Salem Museums & Gardens Horticultural History

Gardens have been an essential part of life in Salem since the town was established in 1766. Salem was described by a Salisbury, North Carolina newspaper, The Carolina Watchman in 1845:

Its style and manners (are) very city-like and no place of the same size contains as many plants and flowers. In every window, yard, and garden you behold them and some of very beautiful and rare order. If a great fancy for flowers argues a corresponding taste for all that’s beautiful and lovely, then the people of Salem are unsurpassed.

Garden History

The Moravians settled their North Carolina colony in the 1750s with a keen awareness of the need to understand and manage their environment. To their 100,000-acre Wachovia Tract, they brought a land stewardship ethic that included: resource identification; inventory and management; land use policies; and conservation practices (the Moravians appointed a forester in 1759, the first in America). The legacy of Moravian foresight in community planning can be appreciated today in Old Salem.

Salem, founded in 1766 as the central town of Wachovia, was the craft, trade and professional center to the surrounding Moravian farming congregations. Although Salem was not a farming community, each residential lot had a yard for household chores and a large garden area, all neatly fenced. The garden area was used intensively, with vegetables, herbs, and flowers planted together in the European style of garden squares divided by paths. Grapes might be along the fence and fruit trees at the rear.

The Moravians are excellent record keepers and from their diaries and journals, paintings and drawings, maps and photographs, we know much about what they grew, when and where. In addition, botanists were among Salem’s residents and recorded important inventories of local flora, collected specimens, and made contributions to the broad science.

Landscape Restoration

With this rich body of documentation, the Horticulture Program at Old Salem has worked for more than forty years to create a landscape recalling early Salem. Native trees and shrubs have been reintroduced, historic fencing styles separate lots and meadows, and gardens are featured throughout the historic area. Stream reclamation has cleaned waterways, and with a mature tree canopy and passive land use in the historic area, habitat supports a variety of wildlife.

The Old Salem Horticulture Staff is committed to sustainable practices including “feeding the soil”, growing heirlooms, and seed saving. Staff researches and plans the gardens; composts and sows green manures for high soil fertility; and plants and maintains only those things believed to have been grown in Salem, or the area, before 1850. These open-pollinated heirlooms supply seed for the important seed saving program at Old Salem. The staff also provides Old Salem residents authentic plans for their own private gardens.Old Salem shares information with the public through garden & tree tours. Heirloom seeds, as well as garden accessories, are sold at Moravian Book & Gift in Old Salem.

Single Brothers’ Garden

Historically, the Single Brothers’ Choir occupied nearly 700 acres that stretched to the west behind their house. In 1769, the Single Brothers’ Choir constructed and cultivated their kitchen garden laid out in large squares on earthen terraces that extended from their back yard down to the creek. In addition to garden squares for vegetables, they also maintained a tree nursery and orchard. This land included the garden, a spring house, stables, and their brewery/distillery and slaughterhouse, as well as fields, meadows and pastures that are seen in the foreground of the 1787 painting of Salem by Ludwig G. von Redeken, at left below. After the Single Brothers’ Choir disbanded in 1823, individuals began to rent garden squares in the old garden. The late 19th century photograph, at left of center below, is looking west across the garden. Note the earthen terraces.

Located to the rear of the Single Brothers’ House and Workshop, this kitchen garden historically fed the men and boys of the Single Brothers’ Choir who lived in the house, sometimes as many as sixty. The Single Sisters’ Choir, whose house is located diagonally across Salem Square from the Brothers’ House, cultivated similar extensive gardens east of the Square in the area that is now Salem College.

The Single Brothers’ Garden is an award-winning restoration made possible through the generous funding of The Garden Club Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. It is the largest interpreted garden in Old Salem, right of center and right below. The Single Brothers’ Garden today is planted with examples of what the Brothers would have grown in their kitchen garden, as well as examples of their field crops. Depending on the season, the large terraced garden squares grow heirloom vegetables and grains, including maize, squash, field peas, broom corn, winter wheat, oats, lettuce, peas, turnips, beets, cabbage, salsify, okra, potatoes, melon, peanuts, beans, sweet potatoes, and buckwheat. Heirloom herbs are grown as well. Apple and cherry trees have been re-established at perimeters, and grapes and gourds grow along the fence.