A century ago, in that pre-T.V. time before Publix, Winn Dixie, and Trader Joes, beach folks still had to eat. The actual way they connected with their calories is on daily display at the Beaches Heritage Garden. Located at the corner of Beach Blvd. and 3rd Ave., the museum garden is wedged between two historic houses (although one is still up on a trailer bed) and is surrounded by an authentic split rail fence. It features much of the produce Pablo Beach pioneers would have planted to survive Northeast Florida’s hurricanes, humidity and heat.
Why is this important? Modern gardeners desiring to know which plants will make it through Northeast Florida’s searing summer can observe the successes and failures of specific veggies in the Heritage Garden. The garden, an organic one, is maintained by a group of volunteer Master Gardeners affiliated with IFAS, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science. Almost any Tuesday morning a revolving group of the faithful– under the leadership of Noriko Stern –can be found planting, mulching, weeding or seeding the eight in- ground plots.
The produce for summer of 2015 currently includes Southern staples: salsify, eggplant, okra, bush beans, watermelons, datil peppers, carrots and black eyed peas. Hyacinth beans twine around the entrance poles but according to Master Gardener Lee McDonald, “You really don’t want to eat those beans. They are deep purple and gorgeous, but not really good for you. Their blossoms also provide pollination.
While salsify might seem out of place with watermelons and okra it fits as something likely to be grown in a pioneer plot. It usually takes a year for it to mature, but when it does produce its hairy, albino carrot like root, there are many ways to use it. http://food52.com has a number of excellent recipes.
Best practices that can be replicated by home growers include the use of an active rain barrel and mulched micro-irrigation. While the pioneers watered by hand since water was precious and hand pumped, the Master Gardeners have rigged micro-irrigation systems for each bed. Mulch keeps the water from evaporating too quickly.
Solarization, to thwart the ever present nematode invasion, is also used in the garden as is careful crop rotation. While pioneers lacked the sheet plastic to perform adequate Solarization (www.ipm.ucdavis.edu) they certainly used crop rotation (www.todayshomeowner.com) to safeguard their plants from the slender microscopic worms that suck the life out of roots and render even the best cared for veggies looking dried out and forsaken.
While the pioneers frequently dressed their fields with abundant cow manure, the Heritage gardeners lacking urban cattle, have to purchase their manure. They also compost both in a traditional bin and in a worm bin. Plant matter in the traditional bin converts at glacial speed because of the lack of adequate kitchen garbage. (No kitchen garbage can is added to an open bin without it becoming an all-you-can-eat rodent buffet.) The vermicomposting—a fancy name for composting with worms—is a bit faster since it is a covered process. www.vermicomposting.com . Most of the vermipoo is used in an elevated strawberry garden.
The Heritage Garden is always part of the formal Museum tour, but it can be viewed at any hour by individuals or groups who want to stroll down memory lane to a time when all food —not simply the budget breaking variety—was both natural and organic.