A Statement of Purpose

Since 2012 I have been responsible for
the garden at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on Antietam National Battlefield. The Pry House garden began as a 19th century style medicinal and kitchen garden, including medicinal plants, herbs, and vegetables. As close as possible, these plants mirrored those available to the Pry Family in the 1860s, meaning heirloom varieties. Since then, the garden has transformed to focus exclusively on medicinal plants, becoming an exhibit of the flora that was employed by military and civilian caregivers in the Civil War Era.

I am strictly an amateur, with no real experience in growing a garden. The purpose of this blog is to document my experiences as I learn by doing. It is anything but authoritative and I welcome any comments and advice for a greenhorn. Please be kind!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Twining Trellis

If you read my earlier post, you know that our white picket fence at the Pry House has been taken down and it's uncertain when it might ever return. We are adjusting and getting used to seeing the the property that way, but it is still strange to look at the Pry House without a fence.

One of the problems that I run into with the garden is the fence had been important in demarcating the back border of the garden. This week I have been putting up a series of new trellises that will help to fix that problem. They are also going to provide a great medium for climbing plants like pole beans, cowpeas, and runner beans.

I used this trellis last year for growing calabash gourds. The gourds did mediocre, but the trellis was great. Unfortunately the winter weather took its toll on the twine, which had to be replaced.

I started making new trellises to expand on the existing structure. I collected some hefty and durable sticks from the woods to serve as the upright posts for the trellis. I dug post holes with a simple hand shovel and placed a stick in each hole. I then filled them back in and tamped the dirt back down. Hopefully they will serve as a sturdy support for beans and other climbers.

Once all the trellis poles were up, I went about stringing twine between each section. It was very easy, but quite time-consuming. That is why this blog is being updated so much later than I usually like to have it finished.

For some of the taller poles I had to pull out the ladder to reach the very top. It makes me nervous getting up there!

Now that it's all finished, I think it looks very good! I just hope that my handiwork will hold up, and soon it will be alive with green!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Taking Down the Fence

It has been something of a sad week for us at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum. Those of you who have visited us will probably remember that the house and yard were surrounded by a striking and attractive white picket fence. This was put in place about fifteen years ago to recreate the white picket fence which was there at the time of the Battle of Antietam in 1862.

Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to the recreated fence. It has deteriorated to the point of falling down in many places and becoming a very real safety hazard throughout its entire length.

Because of this, the National Park Service has deemed it necessary to remove the fence in its entirety. The staff of Antietam National Battlefield's Cultural Resources Division and volunteers from Shepherd's Spring Outdoor Ministry Center have been hard at work dismantling the dilapidated fence this week. 

Knocking off the pickets. Some can be saved; others will be burned.

Digging out the concrete which was used to set the posts

Ranger K. C. Kirkman affixing the sign to the only fencing left standing

Park Superintendent Susan Trail visits the sight 

Ranger Keven Walker digging concrete
During the demolition it was discovered that the iron brackets holding the fence posts to the stone wall were very old, and quite possibly original to the Civil War period. To protect them and reduce them as a safety hazzard, park staff and volunteers built small wooden boxes to cover them.

What makes this sad for the Pry House is that this fence will not be replaced any time soon. Ideally, a new fence would be going in to replace this rotten one, but that would cost thousands of dollars and the money is just not there for Antietam National Battlefield. Money has been a concern for most National Parks for years now, but with the current sequester, times are desperate. As jobs and staffing are cut to the bare bones and preservation projects and interpretive programs are entirely scrapped, getting a new fence for the Pry House is not a possibility. Like so many effected by these Federal Government budget cuts, we are just going to have to learn to do without.

These means that the garden is looking a little different now too. I am going to need to devise a way to demarcate the edge of the garden that was bordered by the fence. If I had realized this would happen so soon, I might have chosen to rearrange the plants in the garden.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Wetting the Bed

I wanted to title this blog post as a reference to the Beatles song, "Fixing a Hole," but no one got that, so you got this rather juvenile title instead.

As I try to expand the variety of plants that are featured in the Pry House Garden, I run into a problem; many plants that were utilized by Civil War Era healers and physicians, especially the Confederate Medical Department, are not well-suited to a typical backyard garden. Some are trees, like the Flowering Dogwood or Butternut. Other popular medicinal plants prefer very wet, almost swampy conditions, like the Blue Flag Iris, the Mayapple, and the Cardinal Flower. I am not about to turn the Pry House into an arboretum, but I am willing to try making a section of the garden a home for moisture-loving plants.

Mayapple - Podophyllum peltatum

There is a great deal of information available on how to drain wet soil for making a garden, but considerably less on how to intentionally make dry ground soggy. Still, I looked around the internet and founds some pointers that I hope have led me in the right direction.

I selected a location for the new "wet bed," one of the lowers spots in garden, and laid out a rectangle of about 9 feet by 4 feet. I began by removing all of the top soil from the bed, shoveling it out by hand, and piling it on an adjacent, empty bed.

Once I reached a layer of solid clay, the digging became much more arduous. I dug down about another foot, piling all the clay separately. Solid clay doesn't make for very good gardening in most circumstances, so, I will be disposing of that elsewhere on property. Ideally, it would have probably been better to dig down further and then line sides with clay. However, I did not have the time or energy for that kind of undertaking.

After digging out the hole for about two feet, it was time to begin filling it back in. Before doing so, I lined the  bottom with jute burlap sacks. They will slowly break down over time, but for a while they will help for keep moisture in the bed.

I added the top soil back into the bed, but added grass and weeds, straw, and compost-rich soil from the compost piles. This gives the soil in the new bed a lot of organic matter, making richer helping it to retain more water.

The new bed is a little bit lower than the surrounding ground, so water should drain into it, rather than around it. I gave the whole bed a long, saturating soak with the garden hose and covered it with a thick layer of straw to help keep the dirt very wet.

With a little luck and constant heavy watering, hard work will pay off and make a home for new hydrophilic plants in the garden.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Spring Bees

Yesterday was April Fool's Day, but I have refrained from making any prank posts. I suppose there is always next year. Instead, I have been taking advantage of good April weather to get out in the garden and do the work that is so badly needed.

One of the best signs of spring is the return of the honeybees! Here is a picture I snapped of one of the first honeybees to visit the garden in 2013. I'm not a professional photographer, so excuse the poor image.

Honeybees are not native to the Western Hemisphere but were introduced to North America by European settlers in the early 17th century. Since that time, they have become fundamentally interwoven with the fabric of American agriculture and ecology.

For most people, the first thought of honeybees is understandably the production of honey. Around the time of the Civil War, honey was only just becoming a commercially viable agricultural product. In earlier times, harvesting honey meant destroying the bees and their hives. Several 19th century innovations, especially the movable frame or Langstroth hive, made honey production sustainable and affordable.

After the Civil War, other inventions like the centrifugal honey extractor (1865) and the hand-held smoker (1875) would continue to make bee-keeping a more practical venture.

Honey is a very unique food. It has been argued that honey is the only food which humans eat that has been manufactured by another animal. If stored properly, honey will last indefinitely, for centuries or more! It is also widely understood to promote healing in burns and cuts, also possessing powerful antibiotic properties. Some people will use it in place of antibiotic ointment in dressing minor wounds.

While most people love honey, that is only a small fraction of what makes honeybees vital to our modern existence. Honeybees are the largest pollinators in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honeybees are responsible for pollinating 80% of all flowering crops, which constitutes at least 1/3 of America's food supply.

Alarmingly, honeybees are in serious trouble. Pesticides introduced in the 20th century often have the unintended effect of killing bees that visit crop fields. The arrival of invasive parasitic mites has also been detrimental to honeybee colonies. Currently the greatest threat to bee survival is a phenomenon known as "Colony Collapse Disorder," in which most of the bees in a hive disappear suddenly without any apparent provocation. Theories abound to explain the cause, including pesticides, parasites, genetic faults, and electromagnetic radiation.

 Honeybees in the Pry Garden's lavender last June