The garden at Brinegar Cabin
One of my favorite Blue Ridge Parkway stops – and one of Mindy DeCesar’s “favorite projects” – is the garden at Brinegar Cabin (mile marker 238.5) at Doughton Park.
DeCesar is the supervisory ranger for interpretation and education for the section of the parkway between Roanoke and Doughton Park – and an organic gardener. Overseeing the Brinegar Cabin garden has been one of her duties since she came to work for the parkway nine years ago. When she started growing heirloom crops there, “I didn’t have much luck,” she says. A soil test showed the soil to be “terribly deficient.” Not having ready access to farm manure, as the Brinegars would have, she “socked it to the garden with lots of organic amendments” and, after fall plowing, instituted a winter cover-cropping regimen, sowing a mixture that included winter rye, winter peas and vetch. Since then, the garden has performed well.
The garden isn’t located where the Brinegars had their vegetable garden (the parkway roadbed now passes through that part of the original farm), but was part of a large flax field the family tended. A quarter of the present garden is devoted to flax, which parkway interpretive staff processes on special events days at the cabin. The remainder of the space is devoted to “field crops” the Brinegars grew elsewhere on their farm, and to heirloom vegetables, flowers and herbs that mountain families planted for dyeing cloth and medicinal use.
Field crops make up a large part of the garden because most parkway visitors don’t know about or recognize all the crops that subsistence farmers like the Brinegars grew to provide for their needs, DeCesar says. Field crops in the garden include sorghum, broomcorn, buckwheat and Dent corn (a variety good for grinding into meal). Among the heirloom vegetables, look for Jersey Wakefield cabbage, Stowell’s Evergreen sweet corn, pattypan squash, candyroasters and pumpkins, turnips and German Johnson tomatoes. Beans twine up pole teepees. Gourds and morning glories climb the picket fence that surrounds the garden; bees and other pollinators zero in on the yellow blooms of tansy, an old-timey herb that mountain women used to repel ants and flies when cabin windows had no screens.
“Our garden isn’t meant to look like the Brinegars’ garden, but is meant to show what mountain families grew and how they grew it,” DeCesar says. “We are always experimenting and talking to people; it’s a trial-and-error process.”
The garden is planted in mid-May, after a farmer who has a nearby parkway agricultural lease plows the plot. Interpretive rangers Amanda Carter-Sheahan and Jackie Sloop, who have researched local heirloom crops and have added their own ideas to the garden layout, tend the garden and harvest its crops until, on Harvest Day (October 2 this year), a horse-drawn plow turns under what remains so the winter cover crop can be sown, germinate and take hold before the growing season ends.
DeCesar and her staff continue to learn new things about the Brinegar family and how they lived and worked.
“We knew that they raised sheep, but we recently interviewed Bob Alexander, whose family lived at the base of the mountain below the Brinegar farm. When he was a boy, Alexander helped herd the flock of sheep that the two families shared. They moved the flock between the summer pasture on the Brinegar farm on the mountain and a warmer winter pasture on the Alexander farm below.”
The route the animals took, from one pasture to the other, is now Doughton Park’s Cedar Ridge Trail, which traces the park’s eastern boundary. The 4.4-mile hiking trail begins near Brinegar Cabin and descends a forested ridgeline to Grassy Gap fire road in Basin Cove.