Monday, March 30, 2015

The Lighthouse Garden

Springtime! Till the soil, get rid of weeds, add compost, plant the seeds, and watch your garden grow!

Many lighthouse families enjoyed flower gardens. They added some beauty and color to light stations that were largely gray--gray rocks, gray tower, brown sand. A keeper at Cape May Lighthouse in New Jersey--Harry D. Palmer--won awards for his flowers and beautiful hydrangea garden. In the 1920s the Cape May Chamber of Commerce repeatedly gave him the annual prize for the city's "Best Kept Lawn."

The grounds of Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, California were groomed and colorful when Emily Fish was the lightkeeper in the 1890s. Her servant, Que, was an expert gardener. Both this lighthouse and Cape May Lighthouse had many visitors, so keeping the grounds attractive was important.

The handsome Carpenter Gothic lighthouse at Point Fermin, California always had lovely flowerbeds, thanks to the women who lived at the lighthouse. The plantings have been researched and are still done today, thanks to the Point Fermin Lighthouse Society. Here's a picture of me in 2004 at the lighthouse with some of the lovely flowers. Who wouldn't want to live here??!!

Keeper P.N. Christiansen and his wife are shown below at Washington's Mukilteo Lighthouse about 1925. They were proud of all their flowers, especially the roses.

The docents at Mukilteo Lighthouse still keep the grounds nice with flowerbeds. This is a very public light station and a museum, so it needs to look good. I took the picture below in the spring a few years ago.

A Master Gardener Project helps keep Yaquina Bay Lighthouse beautiful. It's keepers were removed in the 1870s and for years the lighthouse was an eyesore, until the BLM took over and spruced it up with the help of local gardeners. Kids get to help too! This picture shows some of the gardeners at work. The tall green plants in the back are fava beans.

Gardening was not only a popular pastime at lighthouses, it was a subsistence effort too. While the lighthouse service provided a few nonperishable staples--sugar, molasses, flour, rice, beans, salt beef, and more--lightkeepers planted gardens to have fresh vegetables and herbs.

Point No Point Lighthouse, Washington had a large garden when keeper William Cary and his family were there. The photo above, taken about 1916, shows the Carys working in the garden. Keeper Cary had a parrot on his shoulder!
Lighthouses at northern latitudes took advantage of the long periods of daylight after the vernal equinox. Alaska lightkeepers at Mary Island boasted of cabbages the size of beach balls and kale leaves three feet high. No doubt, the Cary's garden above flourished at 47 degrees latitude. But many lighthouses are at higher latitudes. I recall reading about a New Zealand lightkeeper who bragged about his parsley bed!
Gardens were encouraged by the lighthouse service for many reasons: They kept the families active, provided hobbies and food, and gardens gave the public a good impression of their tax dollars at work. Gardens could be patriotic efforts too. During World War I, lightkeepers were told:
"In view of the threatened shortage of food supplies, the Secretary of Commerce has written the Bureau of Lighthouses urging that keepers and other employees on lighthouse reservations cultivate as much land as possible for growing foods during the present season. Every man in the service is not only permitted but encouraged to grow something for himself in order to relieve as much as possible the shortage in food and high cost of food supplies."
But gardening in sandy, rocky soils was not easy. Many lighthouses were located in soil and weather conditions that challenged gardeners. Soil had to be amended or carted to the light stations. A chicken coop or horse barn provided good compost.
The lighthouse service gave lightkeepers plenty of advice about gardening, and garden books were popular inclusions in the portable libraries exchanged between lighthouses. So were books about food preservation. The U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses included this information on "Seeding Sandy Soils" in its 1913 Lighthouse Service Bulletin:
"The most satisfactory method we have observed for starting grass and other vegetation on the pure sand is to cart in soil from the timbered sections lying back of the drifting sand dunes, and spreading this to a depth of about 1 inch on the surface of the sand." 
Sometimes there was no soil at all. Rock light stations like the Libby Islands, Matinicus Rock, and Mount Desert in Maine were bereft of soil. Storms had scoured it all away. This was no impediment to gardening, however. Lightkeepers at these stations, especially Mount Desert Rock, hauled barrels of dirt by boat to their rocky homes every spring and crammed it into the nooks between rocks. Flowers and vegetables were planted. Sailors began calling Mount Desert Rock "God's Rock Garden" because of its lavish color every summer after flowers bloomed in the rock crevices. Sadly, late autumn and winter storms tore away the gardens, and soil had to be hauled out again the next year for the rock gardens. It was a never-ending cycle.
I wrote a short story about this tradition for the U.S. Lighthouse Society Keepers Log in the 1980s. The children's book Lighthouse Seeds by Pamela Love and Linda Warner remembers this heartwarming tradition--

Lighthouse keepers in Canada still grow gardens. Canada is among the few nations worldwide that still has a few staffed lighthouses. British Columbia has about 20 of them. I visited Chrome Island Lighthouse in British Columbia a few summer ago and was amazed to see a greenhouse full of vegetables and flowers in bloom on the island. Keepers Leslie and Roger Williamson catch rainwater for their plants. Here's the rain barrel in the photo below. You can see the keepers' garden through the greenhouse window. A small decorative lighthouse in a flowerbed is reflected in the greenhouse door window.


Stalks of corn are seen growing in small area by one of the homes on Chrome Island. The island is only a couple of acres in size, and it's a few miles from the mainland. In the background is the lighthouse, a modern fiberglass tower.

As I look at my office window today at the dandelions scattered over my lawn, I'm reminded of the natural beauty at lighthouses. Gardens make for some lovely pictures, like the one above of Point Arena Lighthouse with daffodils.

Gardening helped pass the time for lighthouse keepers, made their homes beautiful, and gave them a sense of pride, and it put fresh food on their tables. Today, we take for granted that produce and other garden fare is just a quick walk or drive away at a grocery store. If you lived on rock out in the ocean, it wasn't so easy!