Lynn Hoffmann, left, and Claire DeMasi, of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardeners organization, working on a woad plant found in the Belle Grove Plantation garden.

MIDDLETOWN — The Belle Grove Plantation is known for its manor house tours and various events throughout the year, but one of the plantation’s great secrets is located behind the manor house.

The plantation is home to a garden that contains both native-born and historically accurate plants that were planted by the Hite family, who built the plantation in the late 18th century.

The garden is seen as a “teaching garden,” which allows people to learn about how the Hite family cultivated the land and cared for plants in the early 1800s. The garden features six plots dedicated to different plants and herbs, including culinary herbs, dye plants, and fruit plants.

The garden was originally established in 1987. Master Gardener Lynn Hoffmann, a master gardener with the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardener Association, began maintaining the garden in 2004.

“It’s a work-in-progress, but it’s never really done,” Hoffmann said. “We never know what’s going to have a good year or what’s going to have a bad year or how much rain we’re going to get.”

Hoffmann said that many of the plants in the garden are of local origin — including the costmary, also known as the “bible leaf plant”. Other plants — including rue, a medical herb — are of European origin that settlers brought over when migrating to the United States. These plants have American variations that are exclusive to the area.

“They originally brought things that brought them comfort,” she said “They were things they thought they couldn’t live without.”

Hoffmann said that the garden also grows fruit plants and trees including gooseberries, raspberries, and apples. She said that the fruit picked off the plants are used to make many of the jams that can be purchased in the Belle Grove gift shop.

Hoffmann said that the group has a limited time to work in the garden each week when they meet up on Tuesday mornings.

“We try to maintain what’s here,” she said. “Anytime we replace something we take out, we look to old records or lists created by the landscape architect who designed this space to find out what was appropriate to the time period.”

Claire DeMasi, a master gardener who has been overseeing the garden since 2014, said if the gardeners can’t get the plants they require in the area, they send out for seeds.

“I usually look on the internet first to see what I can find,” she said. “The Growers Exchange in Virginia has been helpful to get some of the odder things.”

DeMasi said that the master gardeners and volunteers at Belle Grove help maintain the garden, beginning in March until October. She said the garden didn’t lose any plants last year due to the massive amounts of rain that hit the area.

“We were really surprised,” DeMasi said. “We had a lot of rain and everything we wanted to come back came back.”

– Contact Donald Lambert at