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Past and Present in the Garden

Gardening has always been a part of Riversdale’s story. Rosalie Calvert and her father, Henri Stier, frequently mention their shared love of and bond over flowers and gardening. Both took pleasure in the diversion and act of gardening, though enslaved, indentured, and free gardeners were responsible for maintaining and tending the bulk of the ornamental and kitchen gardens. Here are highlights of some of the gardeners mentioned in the Stier-Calvert correspondence.

Unnamed Flemish Teen: The earliest mention of a gardener associated with the Stiers is the son of Henri Stier’s Chateau du Mick gardener. He arrived in the United States by 1795 and was to be trained as an American gardener. The 17-year-old was paid no wages; instead, money was sent home to his family in Antwerp each month. At some point, the teenager challenged the arrangement and Stier wrote to his son seeking advice. By the fall of 1797, the issue was resolved and Stier noted, “It will not be necessary to seek any more information about a gardener. I concluded this matter and made a new lease which I trust will hold up for some time.” It is unknown what happened to the teen gardener. The new lease might refer to that of Jacob, an enslaved man.

Jacob: In January 1796, Jacob was “leased for seven dollars a week.” He was one of four enslaved individuals that made up the labor force of the Stier household in Annapolis. The others included Fanny and her husband, Joseph, and an unnamed woman. Jacob remained enslaved in the household and the record of his life continues in late 1800. Stier was preparing to move to Bostwick in Bladensburg and wrote, "I have engaged the shiper [sic] of Barber and Williams. I plan to have Jacob, the gardener I have hired, accompany the baggage.” The baggage included a collection of tulip bulbs planned to be planted by Jacob before the end of the year. This is the last definitive documentation of Jacob. In the spring of 1803, an ad in the Annapolis Gazette noted the sale of a 35 year-old enslaved man, along with his wife and four children. He is described as a “very good gardener” who also possessed skills in shoemaking. This advertisement possibly refers to Jacob and his family.

Federal Gazette, 8 April 1803

John: In November of 1803, not long after Rosalie Calvert took up residence at Riversdale upon the return of her family to Antwerp, she shared with her mother, “My gardener John works as hard as four people – he is a good man.” Just a month later on Christmas day, he is mentioned again as a “very good” gardener. John was enslaved, though unfortunately little is known of his personal life. John remained at Riversdale for roughly two years. In February 1805, he is again mentioned and was likely sold: “I had to dismiss my gardener John because he had become so insolent. He has been back three times since, begging me to take him back – I am now without a gardener.” While John’s personal story continued, additional documents have not yet been found.

Unnamed German Man: The next specific mention of a gardener appears in the fall of 1816, when Mrs. Calvert wrote to her sister that there was now “a German who seems to be knowledgeable and greatly relieves me. One small inconvenience, however, is that he doesn’t understand a single word of English – I have to explain everything to him in signs.” This unnamed man was bought, along with his wife, off of a ship and was likely indentured. Information about their identities or terms of indenture have not been found. The language barrier might have proved a complication, as three years later he was discharged for knowing “nothing at all and [not being able to] tell a carrot from a turnip.”


The Riversdale Gardens were first restored in 2007, and featured the rich history around Rosalie and George Calvert’s love of horticulture and agriculture. At this time, a section was dedicated to Betty Graefe Gossett, who was a Riversdale volunteer for many years. It reflects not only Riversdale's rich history, but also Betty's love of gardening.

Fast forwarding to today, there have been many changes occurring while Riversdale House Museum has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the garden at Riversdale has always been full of historically accurate representations of crops and flowers that grew in Maryland in the 19th century, the Historic Site Gardener, Laura, has been hard at work researching and creating plans to bring the interpretation of the Riversdale gardens to a new level. These new plans include not only further developing the areas of the garden that are representative of Rosalie and Charles Benedict's respective times at Riversdale, but also the new native plant garden, an interactive kids garden, an plot interpreting a Maryland enslaved family's garden, and crops that were grown by the Indigenous tribes of Maryland. Here's Laura's vision for how the garden will take shape:

Squares A, B, C, and D will be the ornamental Kitchen Garden and interpreted around Rosalie's letters and time period, similar to how they are currently. There will be a mixture of vegetables, flowers, and herbs, as well as the tulip display we all love (that have just started to bloom!), and other flowers that Rosalie specifically mentions like scorzonera, heliotrope, wallflower, and poppy. These will be in addition to other plans that would have been common in 19th-century gardens.

Square E will focus on the agriculture of the Indigenous tribes that lived in this area before the Calverts established the Maryland colony, with plants and crops chosen through collaboration with the Piscataway Tribe. This primarily includes crops like the traditional Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. This section will be used for ongoing programming dedicated to Native American topics and will have signage so that visitors will be able to better understand how the Piscataway and other Woodlands tribes lived prior to colonists arriving in North America. The Three Sisters crops were just recently prepped by the Riversdale garden volunteers (if you're interested in volunteering, email!).

Square F will focus on the gardens of the Enslaved communities in Maryland, with foods planted that would have been grown by the enslaved to supplement their diets. For the spring, Laura has already planted cabbage, collards, beets, carrots, and spinach. These should be harvestable in the next few weeks.

Square G is the Native-plant Garden and is full of plants native to Maryland that will help support native wildlife and ecosystems. These plants can also complement the agricultural foods of the Piscataway. Some of the native plants include Purple coneflowers, bee balm, side oats, and switch grass.

Laura planting native-plant garden

The last section, Square F, will be the Children's Garden. Here will be a space dedicated to children's programming and school collaborations with child-friendly plants that won't mind a little handling. Keep an eye out for this a little further down the line!

Come explore the garden as it grows and evolves around us!

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Community Engagement

Taken from May 2022 RHS Newsletter | Written by Howard Menaker Those of us who support Riversdale, contribute to fund our important collection, or volunteer as docents, Kitchen Guild members, garden d

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