Indiana’s Stream Cliff Herb Farm is a thriving enterprise that maintains a family’s heritage of both living on and making a livelihood from the farm.
Like Brigadoon rising from the mist, Stream Cliff Herb Farm may at first seem a bucolic apparition, a large red brick farmhouse surrounded by colorful gardens suddenly appearing on a bend in a country road among the verdant fields and modest hamlets of southern Indiana. But no mirage this, although there is a bit of magic in the place, to say nothing of a close affiliation to rural life more than a century and a half old.
In a world where people readily move across the country, leaving family and friends behind, Stream Cliff’s owners, Betty and Gerald Manning, provide an opportunity to experience an abiding connection to the land and the community. Perhaps it is this that draws some 20,000 visitors a year to the farm as much as it is the gardens, the tearoom, the classes, and the plants, antiques, crafts, and garden paraphernalia for sale here.
This is a place of history woven with family and a love of working the soil. A place where you can sit a spell under a tree beside a burbling brook or watch the morning mist rise from the pasture beyond a split-rail fence surrounding a riotous mixture of flowers and herbs. A place where neighbors have pitched in to help Gerald transform a dilapidated outbuilding into a cozy classroom, where a daughter produces mouth- watering herb-flavored dishes for lunch and afternoon tea and a son helps raise a wide range of herbs, garden flowers, and native trees and shrubs.
“Our family has deep roots in growing plants; our children are the fifth generation of plantsmen at our farm,” explains Betty. “Stream Cliff is a place where past and present are intertwined in a colonial farmstead atmosphere. Gardening is one of the greatest blessings one encounters on the pathway of life, and we enjoy sharing that at Stream Cliff.”
Making their mark
Stream Cliff has been in the family since 1867, when Betty’s relatives bought the Federal house constructed of clay bricks made on the property. Betty, who grew up on a nearby farm, always wanted to live here. She got her wish in 1965 when she and Gerald, newly married, moved into the antique-filled house surrounded by mature oaks, maples, locusts, and pines as well as peonies, irises, roses, daffodils, and rose-of-Sharon shrubs. Betty and Gerald decided to keep these reminders of previous generations as they imprinted their own mark on the property.
One source of inspiration was Betty’s grandmother Luella Tate Artz, who lived at Stream Cliff from the late 1890s until she died in 1947. Her grand passion was quilting, and she worked on quilts each evening after the farm work was done.
During her fifty years at Stream Cliff, Luella made dozens of quilts. It was one of these, worked in the pattern called Dresden Plate, that Betty and Gerald first re-created as a garden.
The Dresden Plate Garden lies within a split-rail fence near the terrace by the back door. A circular raised bed, edged with brick and surrounded by a brick path, represents the plate motif. Eight wedges alternately containing pink wax begonias and scented geraniums radiate from an urn filled with a mixture of herbs and flowers. Lamb’s-ears encircle the wedges, spilling over the edges of the bed onto the path.
Other gardens inspired by quilt patterns include the Log Cabin, Nine-Patch, Crucifix-and-Heart, and Grandmother’s Fan, each representing one quilt square and ranging in size from about 15 by 20 feet to nearly 30 by 30 feet. Betty fills in the designs with herbs and easy-to-grow annual and perennial flowers. In addition to common garden flowers such as daylilies and hostas, she has planted natives such as blue- flowered amsonias and long-blooming pink echinaceas.
Stream Cliff’s gardens comprise a series of rooms bounded by split-rail or picket fences and linked by brick or mulched pathways. Arches mark transitions between areas. The Bluebird Arbor Trail Garden, a 50-foot-long cedar twig pergola covered with blue morning glory and gourd vines, shades the path between the Crucifix-and-Heart and Log Cabin Gardens.
No matter where you are in the garden, you hear the soothing sound of water tumbling over native stone. A 3-foot-high water wall and small pool mark the entrance to the shaded terrace planted with wax begonias and impatiens that separates the Dresden Plate and Grandmother’s Fan Gardens.
At the center of the Log Cabin Garden is a large sunken pool with a waterfall island, and a 25-foot-long brooklet complete with a small footbridge runs in front of Betty’s art studio. Another small pool and waterfall are tucked into a corner near one of the outbuildings.
For their daughter Elizabeth’s wedding, held at Stream Cliff three years ago, Gerald created a stream leading to a large pool filled with goldfish and koi. A white-painted bridge, a white arbor, and white roses, impatiens, and other flowers further bedeck what has come to be known as the Bridal Garden.
Nearby, in a shady pine grove, is a Secret Garden focusing on fairy lore and designed for the pleasure of children. A nurse-practitioner by profession, Betty seems to have inherited her grandmother’s creative bent, which has manifested itself in cornshuck dolls, wood carvings, everlasting wreaths, and other homespun crafts. Among the many everlastings that Betty grows are old-fashioned, tall-stalked cockscombs, whose burnished, deep red heads dazzle when backlit by the sun. Since their son Greg graduated from the horticultural program at Vincennes University, the Mannings have started growing more aquatic plants, nursery-propagated wildflowers, mass plantings of Russian sage, and ornamental grasses.
A new Butterfly Garden contains both plants that furnish nectar to adult butterflies and plants for the caterpillars to feed on. Nectar sources include lantanas, pentas, and ten varieties of butterfly bush. Butterfly weed and other native milkweeds are favorites of the monarch butterfly. Parsley, dill, rue, and fennel offer fare for the caterpillars. Although the caterpillars sometimes devour an entire plant, Betty considers it a small price to pay for the results.
Buildings for food and fellowship
Gerald’s hand is also evident in the metamorphosis of chicken houses, horse barns, and grain bins into attractive sale areas.
One little building is home to several goats that bleat for passersby to pet them. Twigs and Sprigs, redolent with herbs, is a delightful place for lunch or afternoon tea. Flowered curtains complement the fresh bouquets on the tables and the antique dishes decorating the walls.
Grandmother’s Keeping Room, built by the railroad in 1868 to house stone quarriers and moved to the farm in 1904 by a team of mules, now hosts gardening, cooking, and crafts classes as well as special-occasion meals.
All of the Mannings’ creative renovations suggest many ways for incorporating outbuildings into a garden. Visitors also get lots of ideas on how to use birdhouses and feeders, antique garden tools and furniture, rustic twig gates and wreaths, fanciful terra-cotta pots, and statuary plantings.
Maggie Oster is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in both Indiana and Kentucky.