Martha Turnbull’s 19th-century journal details development of plantation’s gardens
The diary of Martha Turnbull, 19th-century home gardener and mistress of Rosedown Plantation, deserves a place on the bookshelf with better-known diarists, says Mac Griswold, a landscape historian and author of “Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon.”
“Especially great women diarists who wrote in code over a long stretch of time,” Griswold says.
By code, Griswold means Turnbull’s cryptic, always terse, comments on things going right, going wrong or yet to happen in her garden.
For today’s home gardener and horticulturist to appreciate Turnbull’s 59 years of talking to herself, someone had to “decode” the diary of the woman Griswold calls “the greatest hands-on gardener of the Deep South.”
Over the 15 years Suzanne Turner edited and annotated Turnbull’s garden diary, Turnbull’s handwriting became as familiar to Turner as that of a favorite aunt.
Turner, LSU professor of landscape architecture emerita and owner of a landscape architecture firm in Baton Rouge’s Beauregard Town neighborhood, has spent much of her career poking around in the 19th century.
“When I was teaching at LSU, women kept asking me to give talks on 19th-century gardens,” Turner said.
“I knew LSU had great plantation papers. I started reading those papers, correspondence mostly. Diaries and journals are rare other than financial records on cotton and sugar cane.
Educated women wrote in the standard penmanship of the day, Turner said.
“They wrote in what looks like something taught at finishing school,” she said. “Once you get over the hump, all the handwriting is similar.”
Martha Hilliard Barrow married Daniel Turnbull in 1828. Six years later, plant nursery invoices suggest that Martha Turnbull’s gardens were under construction at the same time Rosedown was being built north of St. Francisville.
Martha Turnbull traveled to the gardening meccas of America and Europe to get ideas and plants for gardens that would feed plantation slaves and her family, provide flowers and begin the landscaping that made Rosedown the graceful place people may visit today.
Turnbull’s diary covers the years 1836 to 1894, but Turnbull was stingy with day-to-day information. She makes passing reference to the Civil War which turned Turnbull from what Griswold calls “grandee planter” to a truck farmer.
The diary makes no mention of the deaths of her husband or children. She may have written about the life of Rosedown somewhere else, but the diary is mainly Turnbull’s notes on what would grow on her place and what wouldn’t.
She tried growing peonies, dahlias, asparagus and celery with varying success.
“It surprised me that she was trying to grow those plants,” Turner said. “She was trying to grow plants she’d seen people growing in the East where she went to school.”
The diary records purchases made in catalogs from nurseries in the Midwest and East. By river, ocean, railroad and wagon, the plants Turnbull ordered made their slow way to Rosedown.
Other plantation gardeners competed to beautify their holdings. When they couldn’t buy what caught their eye, they swapped cuttings, rootings and seed with the neighbors.
“She propagated camellias, hedges, roses and evergreen stuff,” Turner said. “She saved vegetable and annual seed. It seems she had a greenhouse from the outset.”
A gardening revolution is recorded in the 59 years Turnbull kept her diary, Turner said.
“You see the technology explosion,” Turner said. “The size of flowers gets bigger. You see the tools and machines gardeners used.”
Before the Civil War (1861-1865), about 450 slaves worked 10,000 acres on Daniel Turnbull’s plantations, most of which was cotton. Rosedown Plantation’s acreage is recorded as 3,455 acres before and after the war.
In failing health, Daniel Turnbull died in the first few months of the war.
Slaves and, after the war, hired hands worked in Martha Turnbull’s gardens. Her formal gardens comprised 28 acres. The size of other gardens, including the truck farm Turnbull raised to make money after the war, varied in size as did the number of hands available to work in them.
Turnbull had a “watering engine,” a tank that could be pulled by horses or humans. She had a lawn roller and probably mechanical grass cutters. She nurtured a lawn of Bermuda grass. An attempt to grow Blue Grass in the 660-foot-long oak allee was one of Turnbull’s less successful experiments.
The diary doesn’t always make it clear what worked and what didn’t. At times, Turnbull seems to have been thinking out loud about what she might try next. Some entries appear to have been instructions Turnbull was leaving for someone who’d be looking after the gardens in her absence.
Other entries reference books or magazines Turnbull had been reading.
“I’d get frustrated,” Turner said, “because I couldn’t read what she was reading.”
Turner began gathering gardening books that would have been known to Turnbull including a few mentioned in the diary.
Turner’s book has drawings of gardening implements and machines that may or may not have been used at Rosedown. One of the sketches shows men using a “tree transplanter” to tip a large tree from the ground.
The machine was an axle supported by two wheels. The axle teed to a wagon tongue to which the tree was lashed. Men pulled the tree over and out of the ground using the axle as a fulcrum.
Daniel Turnbull understood the commerce of the Deep South, prospering despite national panics in 1837 and 1857. Turnbull was solvent at his death in 1861.
His widow did what she had to do to keep the plantation going. She raised vegetables for the market. She economized. In 1878, she applied to the U.S. government for a widow’s pension. She received $8 a month for her husband’s service in the War of 1812.
The last entry in her diary, dated “1st September 1895,” reads, “My Pension came I had not one dime to pay, Emma $2 — this month, August or any debts whatever.”
Turnbull died in September the following year. She was 85.
In June 1896, three months before Martha Turnbull’s death, her daughter, Sarah Bowman, wrote to Bowman’s son, Daniel, of his grandmother’s failing health: “Our dear old Ma’s condition continues to change from day to day. We begin to see that her strength is failing and her wonderful life cannot be spared many months to us. You cannot begin to understand the bitter woe that comes over me when I think that Rosedown has lost its founder, every Tree & shrub was planted by her hands, & won’t it stand a grand old monument to her memory.”