Candle fire okra’s vivid red pods, set against lovely yellow blooms and verdant greenery, gave an otherworldly quality to the gardens behind The Carver Center on a recent morning. Asian beans more than a foot long drooped from vines clinging to a bamboo frame, and stacked-cinderblock planters overflowed with marigolds.
“We’re out here working nearly every Thursday morning; anyone is welcome to come,” said Kristin Meredith, a past president of Rapidan River Master Gardeners, the group that grows and cares for the center’s demonstration garden. “We’ll also be giving tours during the Harvest Days Farm Tour, along with our first-ever plant sale.”
Unable to hold their spring plant sale due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the gardeners will use proceeds from this weekend’s sale to purchase supplies for their demonstration garden, pay for horticulture-related speakers to conduct workshops or other conference-type events, and go toward scholarships for local students interested in a horticulture career, said Larry Baker, a past president who has been a group member for more than a decade.
“We’ll have some shrubbery for sale, fall bulbs ready to plant like iris and day lilies, perennials—some native, some not—appropriate for planting in the fall, some packaged seeds, any gardening items our members have that might be of interest,” Baker said. “Our gardeners will be bringing plants to donate for the sale that they’ve been growing in their own gardens, so it’s hard to say exactly what that will entail.”
The 24th annual Culpeper Harvest Days Farm Tour will be held Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 18-19, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days, with opportunities to visit 14 Culpeper farms plus Culpeper Agricultural Enterprises, the tour’s Welcome Center.
In addition to garden tours offered by the master gardeners, the historic George Washington Carver Regional High School—where African American students from Culpeper and other counties were educated during segregation—will be open for visitors to explore. Located at 9432 James Madison Highway near Rapidan, the school sits about six miles south of Culpeper off Orange Road in the shadow of Cedar Mountain.
The exhibit “When Women Use Their Power,” about past Black women business-owners from the area, will be open to view during the Farm Tour at the Four-County Museum in the school’s former library, hosted by the alumni association of George Washington Carver Regional High School.
Commercial kitchen space at the Center may be seen, with representatives from The George Washington Carver Food Enterprise Center giving tours, discussing its plans and renderings and accepting input on future use of the facility.
The Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont will also be participating in the Farm Tour at the Carver Center, with a showcase of high tunnel production, raised bed production, disease control strategies, vegetable production for niche markets and youth-led gardening for local food pantries.
COVID-19 concerns drove record numbers of people outdoors and into gardening, research revealed during the past 18 months, reported AgWeek.com.
“As the pandemic caused localized shortages of food and fresh produce, even though temporary, more people desired to have greater control over their food supply through gardening,” the online magazine stated.
Also, gardening can be therapeutic. “As COVID-19 caused a need for social distancing, gardening provided contact with something real,” Ag Week reported. “The smell of soil and flowers, the taste of herbs and fresh produce, and the feel of warm sunshine provided stability in an otherwise unreal world.”
Several of the Rapidan River Master Gardeners are new to the program, including Joy Harnage of Culpeper.
“This is my first full year as a master gardener,” said Harnage said, who cultivates a flower garden at home. “It’s always been something I enjoyed doing. I’m very glad to have all the knowledge gained through the program.”
In partnership with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Rapidan River Master Gardeners’ mission is to educate residents of Culpeper, Madison, Orange and Greene counties about safe, effective and sustainable garden-management practices.
“Our primary function is education,” Meredith said. “In normal years, we go into schools and teach students, we hold classes and workshops. We’ve been a little thwarted by the pandemic, but we’ll start it all up again at some point when it’s safe.”
The group provides research-based horticulture information and advice to residents about growing plants. Typically, they hold two meetings per year and organize an annual field trip. Every few years, they organize a daylong training conference with speakers and topics of interest to the gardening community.
“Our gardens provide thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables to food banks in Culpeper, Orange and Madison counties,” Meredith said. “This weekend, we welcome the opportunity to talk with the public. We’re always looking for those who would like to join our ranks.”