Old World Wisconsin: How the gardens grow

May is a month of hope and faith for gardeners who begin with seeds or fragile stalks and dream of a cornucopia of color and food.

A shady yard, brown thumbs and limited dedication challenge my own success, but even visions of spindly tomatoes and out-of-control perennials get me revved up during this time of year. It’s time to shake off winter’s blankets and take on the weeds of spring.

Now add “Putting Down Roots: Garden Insights from Wisconsin’s Early Settlers” by Marcia Carmichael (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $24.95), which offers new reasons to pay attention to what grows here and why.

Deep roots, in this book, mean ethnic heritage and habits that help explain what we choose to grow and pass on to the next generation. The author is the historical gardener at Old World Wisconsin, a 576-acre living history museum in Waukesha County, one of 11 state historical sites and museums.

So we learn why Yankee settlers and six nations of immigrants planted what they did, how they gardened and what they typically did with the harvest. How did a German’s garden differ from a Finn’s? This new resource explains.

“Putting Down Roots” is a mix of recipes, history and folklore, just as Old World Wisconsin is an historically accurate reproduction of ethic and heirloom gardens, from plot design to plant species.

Today’s average gardeners “are fortunate to have access to seeds and plant material from around the world, making it possible to create their own ethnic gardens filled with heirloom plants,” Marcia writes.

“As you continue the tradition of passing along these heirlooms, you will experience the joys these garden treasures have brought to people for generations.”

In honor of Syttende Mai, Norway’s Independence Day, here is the recipe for a traditional spring dessert from the book “Putting Down Roots.”

(The nation’s largest Syttende Mai celebration, by the way, happens May 13-15 in Stoughton. Activities include a 20-mile run and a 17-mile walk that begin in Madison, lutefisk brats and lefse, ethnic entertainment and an original comedy – “Mr. Olson Goes to Washington.” For more about the citywide party: www.stoughtonwi.com, 888-873-7912.)

(Grunnlav’s Dessert)

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
cold water

2 eggs
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
dash of allspice

Cut rhubarb into 2-inch pieces. Bring water and sugar to boil. Add rhubarb and simmer until almost tender. Remove rhubarb to serving bowl, leaving liquid in saucepan. Mix cornstarch in small amount of cold water. Remove saucepan from heat and stir in cornstarch. Return to heat. Simmer 3 minutes. Pour over rhubarb in serving bowl. Mix carefully.

For custard: Beat eggs and sugar until fluffy. Bring milk to boiling and add to egg mixture, beating vigorously. Put in saucepan and simmer until thick, beating constantly. Remove from heat; add vanilla and cool, stirring occasionally. Pour custard over rhubarb. Sprinkle with allspice.

Old World Wisconsin, W372 S9727 Hwy. 67, Eagle, is open daily until Oct. 31.

Staff present “Rituals of Spring” on May 21; visitors watch the handling of wool from sheep herding and shearing to fiber spinning and dying. A hardy supper is offered before a nighttime barn dance.

On other Saturdays this month, watch the film “Green Fire,” about the life of conservationist Aldo Leopold, and use old-time methods to work in the gardens or try your hand at other rural life chores.

“Putting Down Roots” author Marcia Carmichael signs copies of her book on June 11, when music and other events celebrate the site’s one-year recovery from June 21 tornado damage.

For more: www.oldworldwisconsin.com, 262-594-6301. Admission is $16 (less for children, students and senior citizens). Or, buy a Wisconsin Historic Sites and Museums Passport ($70 for a family, $35 for an individual) to gain admission to all 11 attractions statewide.

Upcoming events at other public gardens include:

Boerner Botanical Gardens, 9400 Boerner Dr., Hales Corners – catered brunch on Sundays; Herb Faire, talks and vendors, May 21; In the Gardens, annual fundraiser with music, food and a silent auction, June 17. www.boernerbotanicalgardens.org, 414-525-5600

Green Bay Botanical Garden, 2600 Larsen Rd., Green Bay – annual Garden Fair, June 3-5, annual Garden Walk, July 9-10. Volunteer at the monthly Weed N’ Feed (first Wednesday, June through September) in exchange for a meal. www.gbbg.org, 877-355-4224

Olbrich Botanical Gardens, 3330 Atwood Ave., Madison – guided garden strolls on Sunday, June to September; Rhapsody in Bloom fundraiser with music, food. June 18; www.olbrich.org, 608-246-4550

Rotary Gardens, 1455 Palmer Dr., Janesville – free admission, May 14-20, June 1, July 6, Aug. 3; Dinner Dance, July 16, Garden Festival, Aug. 27. www.rotarybotanicalgardens.org, 608-752-3885

Head to www.gardensites.info for online links to public gardens and reliable gardening advice, all planted in one spot and organized by state.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.