Gardeners growing up park goodies

Published 11:30 am Monday, June 11, 2012

A cooperative effort between employees at the Vicksburg National Military Park and the Warren County Master Gardeners is bearing fruit — literally.

Zinnia are blooming, clumps of tomatoes hang heavy on the vine and corn is beginning to tassel, while nearby herb and ornamental beds are full with basil and mint, spirea, canna lilies and other varieties.

The park’s “heritage garden” has been created over the last two months in the formerly fallow plot in front of the Pemberton Road building that was once the residence of the park superintendent.

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Three varieties of cotton, white, brown and green, appear to be thriving along with rice and sorghum — “appear to be” because no one really knows for sure. One purpose of the heritage garden is for teaching about the culture and commodity crops of Civil War-era Vicksburg, and the teachers are being taught, too.

“It’s our first experience with all of this,” said Master Gardener Sonny Hale, nodding toward young rice plants as he stooped to pull weeds from the cotton beds. “We thought we’d just try to show people that might never have seen it what rice looks like. Even though this is a heritage garden, a lot of it is new to us just like it is to everyone else.”

The 30- by-100-foot area was cleared, tilled and fenced off with some of the proceeds of a $22,000 Parks as Classrooms grant, said Melissa Perez, the VNMP’s education director. A Trex environmentally friendly, boardwalk-like pathway is also on the list for purchase and installation so gardeners, students and visitors may access the beds.

“We really want to use this as an outdoor learning lab, not just in terms of natural resources but also as a way to connect school kids and visitors to the civilian story,” said Perez. “Gardening was popular at that time (1860s Vicksburg), not just for ornamentals but for medicinals and edibles as well.”

The garden is divided into eight 12-by-22-foot plots — two planted with flowers, two with herbs and four with vegetables and commodity crops. It’s hoped the area also will be a showcase for heirloom plants and Mississippi Medallion winners.

Park natural resources manager Virginia DuBowy, who is a Master Gardener, said the cooperative effort solved two problems.

“The Master Gardeners had been looking for a demonstration garden for two years,” she said. Park officials had also wanted to put in a historically authentic garden to enhance the park’s role in education, she said.

“It will help us use the park as a classroom, as a learning lab, and give that hands-on experience,” DuBowy said.

Parks as Classrooms was launched by the National Park Service in 1992 and has funded programs in about 250 areas. Its goal is to promote the parks, education and the integration of research and interpretive programs.

Master Gardeners also bill themselves as educators. After receiving their training, Master Gardeners complete 40 hours of community service in the first year and at least 20 hours a year after that. In Vicksburg, their volunteer work includes manning a booth every summer at the Vicksburg Farmers’ Market, answering questions and advising on home gardening.

Some of the vegetables grown in the heritage garden will be used for demos and some donated to local food banks, Perez said.

Perez and DuBowy plan to involve the VNMP’s Junior Rangers in the heritage garden in July, and foresee possible activities with the area’s students after school starts in August, with lessons from history to science.

“In the fall we’ll put in a winter garden,” DuBowy said. “It will be a year-round thing.”