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Four-square garden an homage to early Pa. Germans

May 13, 1999

4-Square GardenBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Pennsylvania Germans in the 18th and 19th centuries were so religious that they planted their gardens in the form of a cross to reflect their beliefs.

Today, a replica of one of those early four-square gardens flourishes behind the Fahnestock House at the Renfrew Institute. The four squares in the Renfrew garden are four raised beds in the middle for annuals with perennials and bushes growing along the fence.

In the original gardens, a bush or potted plant in the center represented God and the four beds represented the sun and planets revolving around heaven. Many early Germans believed the outer beds stood for stars and the fence around the garden kept out not only animals, but also the devil.

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These days, groups of students, mostly second-graders, come to the garden for classes every spring.

Their teacher, Doris Goldman, is in charge of the garden, maintaining it and researching the ancient plants that grow in it. Goldman, 49, holds a Ph.D. in plant ecology. She has worked part time for Renfrew for 14 years.

She designs the garden to reflect the way it would have looked between 1780 and 1830. Four-square gardens went out around the time of the Civil War, she said.

Goldman said an archaeological dig in an ancient privy behind the main house at the Renfrew Museum and Park turned up some 200 seeds of 25 varieties. Although dead, they gave clues as to the kinds of plants early Germans grew in their gardens.

To reproduce the garden of 200 years ago, Goldman gets seeds from the gardens of area families, from catalogs and from sources in Germany, she said.

The 300 varieties in the garden include fruits, vegetables, ornamentals, herbs for cooking and medicine and plants to make soap, perfume and even children's toys.

"The Pennsylvania Germans thought all the plants had to have a purpose," Goldman said. "They thought all had to have some medicinal or other use. They had signature plants that were shaped like body organs and they thought they would be useful to that organ.

"The Virginia bluebell is shaped like a lung, so they thought it would be good for the lungs," she said. "It didn't work."

Goldman said high school students start plants for the garden in the school greenhouse.

The kids not only get to dig in the dirt, they also get to taste some of the things they planted and play with plants their counterparts used for toys 200 years ago.

They pulled dandelion flowers and used the hollow stems to blow bubbles during Tuesday's class, she said.

Goldman said the young students enjoy digging potatoes best.

"It's like digging for gold," she said. "They dig and they get to find something."

One problem Goldman faces each year is making use of all the fruits, vegetables and herbs the garden produces.

Renfrew employees take some home and some produce is given away to anyone who wants it.

The garden is open to the public.

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