A step back in time at the Pearl S. Buck historic garden
Sunday visitors to the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Gardens enjoyed a return to "The Good Earth," with free garden tours, demonstrations, and a little bit of history behind the famed author and humanitarian.
The event was sponsored by the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, part of the Calvin W. Price Appalachian Enrichment Series. Sunday's event was the first in a four-part series scheduled at the museum this summer.
Event organizers invited local "mostly-retired" farmer Cad Tyler to talk about some of the tools he uses, and share some tricks he's learned in his 60 years of farming. Tyler also talked about organic gardening author Eliot Coleman and some of the methods he employs.
"When he starts something, not direct seeding, say these cucumbers for instance - that's two weeks he can prepare the beds and get the weeds out. Then when these little fellas go in, they've got a two week head start on all the weeds. That makes a lot of sense. The other thing I like about it, I get exact placement. If I want these a foot apart, I don't have to thin. I hate thinning," laughed Tyler.
Tyler showed everyone his soil blocker, a small metal hand tool he uses to build soil forms for starting seedlings. He said everyone discussed the advantages of using that system over plastic trays. Tyler also showed the crowd his homemade germination box - a wood framed box that incorporates a heating pad and fluorescent lights, designed for germinating seeds.
Museum volunteer Ginger Must and Tyler agreed that when it comes to mulch, simple grass clippings seem to work well.
"You cut it and you lay it down really loosely around a new baby plant," explained Must. "Just take it and spread it. Let it dry a little bit until it becomes fluffy. If you put it down too thick, it just becomes a glob."
Attendees discussed whether a till or no-till method is the best approach to soil structure. Tyler said he doesn't till his garden.
"I don't have a tiller, I've got a pitchfork," Tyler said.
Must said the period-historic garden at the museum is in its second season. Last year, volunteer gardeners went ahead and plowed the garden, then tilled it, but they're hoping to get to the point where they don't have to till.
Joe Heathcock, of Hillsboro, talked about cover crops and their function in the museum gardens. Heathcock said the most important criteria when selecting cover crops is whether it's a warm weather or cool weather variety.
"Buckwheat - frost will kill. Millet - frost will kill," Heathcock said. "So I grow those in the summertime when it's more productive. In the winter, the three things that worked really good this year - winter rye, clover and vetch. A combination of those will get the ground covered for the winter."
Attendees were invited to walk around the grounds for some historic background about the museum. Tim VanReenen talked about the apple and mulberry trees.
"This area would have been an apple orchard," explained VanReenen. "Most of these trees are not original, but were planted to reflect varieties that would have been here."
Birthplace museum executive director Sue Groves took everyone for a walk in the organic garden and explained how they're using a raised-bed system with permanent footpaths, to avoid soil compaction.
"We just started at one end and worked our way down," said Groves. "We laid out where we wanted the paths to be, and shoveled up the paths. These areas that are the raised beds have never been walked on since it was all tilled up."
Must said they've tried to avoid using modern plastic fabrics or supports to maintain a historic feel, and they prefer to use donated mulch in the footpaths for weed suppression.
"We're trying to keep things old-timey," she said. "I brought a couple of tomato cages last year but somebody suggested we do these tee-pees and poles instead."
Heathcock answered questions and talked with gardeners about companion planting.
"If I do something like spinach, in rows, I'll do every other row spinach and carrots," explained Heathcock. "Carrots are a root crop and spinach is a leaf crop, so they can share a pretty similar space without competing with each other."
Heathcock said he tries to plant different crops in every bed he plants.
"Kind of mix it up," he said. "If you have just one crop all the way across, and you get aphids, or beetles - they're gonna spread like wildfire. Having those breaks in there with different crops slows them down, keeps it more diverse."
Groves said everything the museum grows goes to two local food pantries, the Pocahontas Cooperative Parish Food Pantry and North Central Community Action, as part of the "Plant a Row for the Hungry" program.
"It's a program that was originally started by the Garden Writers Association of America," said Groves. "West Virginia University Extension Service handles it for the state."
Groves said it's a program to encourage gardeners to simply plant an extra row and donate that extra food to a local pantry.
"It's a way to get fresh, local produce into the pantries," said Groves. "We have a program here in the county that I organized two years ago, and we have two food pantries in Marlinton that are set up to accept donations. It's just a really good program."
According to the Garden Writers Association website, the program was started in 1995 and has produced more than 18 million pounds of food.
The website reads, "All of this has been achieved without government subsidy or bureaucratic red tape - just people helping people."
Groves said they've also started a fruit harvesting initiative at the museum.
"There are so many orchards in this county where the apples just go to waste," said Groves. "Nobody does anything with all this fruit. So we try to get out and get permission from landowners and harvest fruit and take that to the pantries."
Groves said she is looking forward to the other events lined up this summer. On July 15, WVU extension agent Greg Hamons is scheduled for a workshop, and on August 19 another tour is scheduled- Sam Arbogast will be bringing his draft horses to the museum for a plowing demonstration. The last event is scheduled for September 16 when a group coming up from North Carolina will be talking about herbs and herbal medicines.
Groves said she was excited about the way everything came together on Sunday.
"I'm pleased," she said. "It was a small, but interested group."
The Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum is looking for volunteer help in the gardens. Anyone interested can e-mail email@example.com or call 304-653-4430
"If anyone wants to pitch in, please let us know - we'd be happy to put you to work," Groves said.