Suzanne Turner, ed. The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull, Mistress of Rosedown Plantation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012. xix + 346 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-4411-4; ISBN 978-0-8071-4412-1; ISBN 978-0-8071-4413-8; ISBN 978-0-8071-4414-5.
Reviewed by Giselle Roberts (La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia)
Published on H-SAWH (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series and Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters)
A surviving portrait of Martha Turnbull reveals a slight, middle-aged woman with her dark hair parted severely in the middle and her fists clenched gently against the heavy folds of her dress. After reading her garden diary, one can imagine a more unencumbered Martha checking on the thousand-odd flower pots in her greenhouse, directing the planting of cauliflower and tomatoes, or supervising slaves as they cleaned the walks of weeds and leaves at Rosedown Plantation near St. Francisville, Louisiana. From 1836 to 1895, Martha Turnbull kept a planting and maintenance record of Rosedown’s kitchen garden, plantation garden, orchard, and pleasure garden. Her weathered book, filled with harvesting instructions and bucolic tips, found its way into the hands of landscape architect Suzanne Turner. Drawing on southern horticultural texts and books and periodicals belonging to the Turnbull family, Turner provides readers with a remarkable portrait of the gardening life of a plantation mistress and the evolution of a plantation landscape from the antebellum period through Reconstruction.
Suzanne Turner gives away little about the family histories of Martha and Daniel Turnbull. The couple were married in 1828 and settled on 10,000 acres of plantation land near St. Francisville. They owned 250 slaves. The gardens of Rosedown plantation began with the customary avenue of oaks that led to the big house, and from there formal garden plans were drawn up, parterres were marked out, and the hard work began. Martha commenced her diary in November 1836 with brief entries documenting her activities in the garden. She noted the weather, optimal times for planting and harvesting, horticultural experiments that worked, and those that did not. Annual maintenance, tool inventories, and new gardening techniques were added along the way. “November 6 Planted Rose cuttings, Shrubs & c—very dry,” she wrote. Others entries follow suit: “Dec. 7  Commenced hilling our Celery ”; “Jan.  On the 10th burnt off Strawberry bed”; “February 8. Spring Lettuce, Egg Plants & Radishes come up—Forked up my asparagus beds, Planted Parsnips, Carrots, Beets & Salsify seed” (pp. 23-26). Just as Martha worked to impose order on the turbulent delta landscape, Turner has untangled every detail in this otherwise impenetrable horticultural narrative. Using Thomas Affleck’s Southern Rural Almanac (1851 and 1860), Gardening for the South by William White (1868) , J. C. Loudon’s An Encyclopedia of Gardening (1822), and other contemporary works, Turner reconstructs the cyclic turns and seasonal nuances of plantation life. For every phrase or entry, Turner explains plant histories and agricultural practices in a paragraph or more, providing a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of gardening in the nineteenth century. We learn that Martha used cotton seed to insulate young plants against the winter chill, burnt off her strawberry beds in January to promote growth, oversaw the regular maintenance of drainage ditches to prevent flooding, and sowed two or three successive crops of vegetables to extend the run of popular staples for the family table.
These detailed vignettes sweep across time and space to create a larger portrait of Rosedown, and in particular, the people who worked the land. Martha Turnbull recorded the activities of her slaves in detail, noting those who possessed specialized training in grafting and budding fruit trees, greenhouse care, and plant propagation. Some, like Augustus, stayed with the Turnbulls through war and defeat. Many did not. The absence of available labor, wartime shortages, and Federal occupation halted work at Rosedown for months at a time. The tone and purpose of the diary shifted as a result. Instead of noting the latest shipment of peonies from Prince and Sons Nursery, Martha made tool inventories, commented on the corn crop, and tallied up her household supplies. After carefully listing the crops planted in 1861, the repair of two garden engines, and a note on her four good watering pots, Martha unexpectedly added, “It takes 1 lb. & 2 Oz of Wool to 6 Pair of Army Socks” (p. 148). War had trampled through Martha’s life and her garden, and sat ominously between jottings on cabbages and earthen jars. In the postwar period, ornamental pursuits were weighed carefully against the cost of labor. Without income to pay her taxes, Martha resorted to offering tenant farmers board and keep in return for maintenance work in the garden. Widowed and aged, Turnbull continued to embrace changes in gardening styles and techniques. As Turner notes, “In the 1880s, she ordered grass seed from Buist and took great pride in the beauty of her spring lawn,” and “updated her routines to take advantage of labor-saving tools” in an effort to preserve her life’s work and cultural legacy: the cultivation of elite southern gentility in Rosedown’s every tree and flower (p. 211).
Suzanne Turner has excavated meaning from Martha Turnbull’s gardening diary with precision and elegance. The book brims with intriguing facts about planting parsnips and setting out violets, culminating in an astonishing portrait of horticultural life at Rosedown plantation. Turner has left no stone (or garden bed) unturned, and the diary shines within her remarkable contextual framework. Her decision to cut Martha’s words mid-sentence in order to make way for explanatory details is disruptive at times, but her expert use of diagrams and illustrations certainly compensates for these frequent narrative breaks. One can imagine Martha traversing the parterres at Rosedown, and Turner is to be congratulated for helping readers to understand the stories behind every plant and participant in Turnbull’s magnificent design. The book is a visual and documentary delight, a boon to historians and horticulturalists alike.
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Giselle Roberts. Review of Turner, Suzanne, ed., The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull, Mistress of Rosedown Plantation.
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