Archive for June 15, 2012

Garden History and Design: Sundials

Visitors to the Smithsonian Castle may stumble upon a nice surprise as they peruse the Enid A. Haupt Garden: a handmade horizontal sundial. Sundials date back to the ancient Egyptians who used obelisks to track the shadow the sun cast which measured time in relation only to the length of the shadow. These sundials acted in a limited capacity; however, they only divided the day in half by marking noon as the middle of the day.

Enid A. Haupt Garden Sundial

Enid A. Haupt Garden Sundial

These ancient “sundials” do not remotely resemble what we picture when we think of the sundials that grace so many gardens today. The latter kind weren’t invented until 300 B. C. when a Babylonian priest cut a half-sphere into a cubical block and fixed a bead at its center which would cast a shadow in an arc marking the time of day. These delineated hours were called temporary hours since the shadow lengths changed with the seasons.

Sundials became more accurate when it was discovered that a slanted object capable of casting a shadow gave a more accurate reading regardless of the season. The time system we use today, called equal hours, was not created until the mechanical clock was invented in 1300 A. D.

Haupt Garden Sundial Close-up

Haupt Garden Sundial Close-up

It goes without saying that sundials require a sunny place to mark time, though they are often sited at the center of flower beds or the intersection of axial paths. Accuracy is fleeting as the sun agrees with the clock only one day each season! The rest of the time, sundials can by off as much as a quarter of an hour.

Although sundials are no longer needed to tell time, they still remain in the garden as a decorative fixture that symbolizes the passing of time.

Brittany Spencer-King, Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens

June 15, 2012 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment

Summer Crops from Monticello: A Gillette Family Garden Update

The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s current exhibition Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, may be found in the in their gallery on the second floor of the National Museum of American History and outside at the southwest corner of the terrace. There, you’ll find a vegetable garden, replete with plantings which will be rotated throughout the time of the exhibition. Jefferson’s estate was known for growing cash crops, chiefly tobacco and wheat. So what do all these vegetables have to do with Monticello?

USDA Farmer's Market with Leni Sorenson on Friday, June 8

USDA Farmer’s Market with Leni Sorenson on Friday, June 8

The Gillette Family Garden  is a representation of the garden cultivated by the Gillette family, individuals in the enslaved community on Jefferson’s estate. The Gillettes were truly entrepreneurs; they gardened in their limited free time and sold the produce to improve their situation. The plants growing in the NMAH garden were carefully selected based upon the research of Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, who examined the estate’s account books and researched plants typical of contemporary nineteenth-century gardens.

Out with the turnips, in with the okra! We just changed out the crops for the summer. The harvested turnips were shared with the chef, and turnips, beets and cabbage were displayed at Monticello culinary historian Leni Sorensen’s cooking demonstration at Friday’s USDA Farmers Market.

Summer plantings


Fish Pepper

Fish Pepper

Okra: Cow’s Horn Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus

Peppers: Fish Pepper, Capsicum annuum ‘Fish’

Sesame: Bene, Sesamum indicum

Strawberries: Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana


Gherkins: West Indian Gherkin, Cucumis anguria var. anguria

Squash: Sweet Potato Pumpkin, Cucurbita moschata

Cymling or Pattypan Squash, Cucurbita pepo variety

The exhibit is on view until October 14, 2012. For more information and to see how the garden was made, go to

June 15, 2012 at 8:28 am Leave a comment

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