Meet the Time Traveling Gardener

Image courtesy of Plimoth Plantation, Rachel Perez

Image courtesy of Plimoth Plantation, Rachel Perez

Using 17th Century Techniques in a 20th Century Garden

Malka Benjamin helps people step back in time. By day, she is a hybrid historian, educator, and actor at Plimoth Plantation, a “living history museum” of 17th-century Plymouth Colony on the South Shore. Museum guests are transported to the early 17th-century in the Museum’s English Village exhibit, meeting locals of the time and getting a sense of what their experiences might have been like. Malka is one of these locals, taking on the persona of real-life Mayflower passenger Susanna Winslow. Through intensive research and some interpretation, Malka adds a human element to the story of the Pilgrims and enriches the experience of museum guests. She, like a woman of the time, cooks meals over an open fire, assists with agricultural chores, and maintains a large kitchen garden.

At Plimoth Plantation’s recreated English Village, there are hand-built houses, each with its own garden plot. Malka says that while historians don’t definitively know what was grown in each garden, they make educated guesses based on what was commonly grown in England at the time and later writings of the colonists. With that knowledge, the museum makes the best efforts to grow gardens appropriate to the year 1627 (the year currently being depicted in the English Village exhibit). The colonists would have referred to everything grown in a kitchen garden as an “herb,” with the pronounced H, though today we would use the term vegetables.Anything used for cooking was called a “pot herb,” distinct from medicinal herbs. Ornamentals were least likely to be grown in the garden. They had leeks, garlic, onions, cabbage, carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes, chard, lettuces, endive, arugula, spinach, peas, beans, borage, calendula, sorrel, cukes, melons, and squashes. Carrots of the time were purple, red, and yellow; orange carrots had not yet been bred. Medicinal herbs had their own significance, some of which stand the test of time. Malka still keeps sage in her home garden, for example, because of its ability to help clear up a congested or cold-ridden nose!

But Malka wasn’t always a gardener. She began working at Plimoth Plantation in 2011 and that’s when she started learning and building her garden at home. As a kid, her grandfather and great-aunt had vegetable gardens. When she first started growing on her own, she built raised beds because that’s all she knew. Her first year was challenging — nothing grew. But she’s been improving every year since.

One of the techniques Malka brings home from work is companion planting. A very old practice that has become popular again in sustainability circles, companion planting is the practice of planting different plants close together for mutual benefit. For example, she grows her borage next to her tomatoes because each pant ends up stronger. She also says her arrangement is very 17th century. She plants leeks and garlic along the edges of her beds to more efficiently use her space and to act as a barricade, working to keep pests like rabbits out of the bed.

Malka stands in her personal garden
Malka stands in her personal garden

Moving between gardens and time periods has made her acutely aware of timing. We might operate on the Gregorian calendar, but in 1627 life was lived on the Julian calendar, neither of which are our Jewish lunar calendar. Holidays don’t always line up, as most Jews are accustomed to. Her most memorable intersection was the 2013 collision of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah putting her in demand as the “Jewish Pilgrim” of sorts with expertise in colonial life. With her help, the Museum rose to the occasion, arranging educational tie-ins, recipes, and a turkey menorah made by school children that now resides in the museum.

With Rosh Hashanah approaching, she’s already thinking about what recipes she’ll use to support her family’s meals. In the past, she’s made Cucumber Vichyssoise Soup, a salad of yellow and red beets, and Mac and Cheese with Sauteed Chard. She often draws from the Victory Garden Cookbook, her favorite, because it is organized by vegetable. Her favorite tomato soup recipe uses lovage, an herb common in 17th-century Holland that she says is similar to celery but is more complex. She also uses this in a Chard Quiche recipe she made up. She also grows sorrel at home and uses it alongside spinach and lettuce in her own mesclun mix.

Malka has some advice for today’s beginning gardeners. Begin with good soil, good compost, and try to understand the value of thinning. She says you have to think about how big the plant will grow, and not how big it is when it’s a seedling. If you make sure your plants have space to grow, you’ll have better results even though you might have fewer plants all together. She also advises starting small and adding on as you go. If you’re growing in containers, be sure to get plants bred to grow in containers, not the ground.

We couldn’t help but ask her what kept her inspired and motivated given she gardens both professionally at work and recreationally at home. She has an undying love for cooking and eating. “It’s more fun when you’ve grown it yourself.” She loves the challenge of trying to improve from year to year, deciding what to grow, and gauging how much of it to grow and how to use it. “Even after all these years, it’s still amazing to me. You plant this tiny seed, it grows into a tiny thing, and you can eat it. It just tastes better when you grow it yourself.”