Master Gardener: Old Fort Hays Heirloom Garden

Master Gardeners of Ellis County
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In the Surgeon’s Report of August 1875 at Fort Hays there came this detail, “The potatoes in the hospital garden, now in the process of digging and storing in cellar, have done exceedingly well notwithstanding the extreme want of moisture during the months of April, May, and June. The tomatoes, beets, onions, sweet corn, squash, and melons have not yielded quite as well.” While gardens were first ordered by the United States War Department, the importance of gardens at military forts was the fact they kept the soldiers healthy. Just two months after Fort Hays was established in 1867 there was mention of a garden at the post. Vegetables from the gardens were an important part of the soldiers' nutrition and helped prevent dysentery and scurvy. The size of gardens ranged from less than an acre to 20 acres for more. Just as today drought, insects, and inexperience contributed to poor crop failure at the fort.

Today the post gardens of the past live on in the heirloom garden planted and tended each year by the Ellis County Extension Master Gardeners. By combing through historical post and surgical records, it was determined what types of vegetables were planted. Through more research it was found what specific varieties were available at Fort Hays from 1867 to 1889. Seeds from those heirloom varieties are what are planted in the heirloom garden tended by the Ellis County Master Gardeners. And because heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, these plants will look just like the plants did some a hundred and fifty years ago.

This year the Ellis County Master Gardeners have planted thirteen different varieties of heirloom plants. Some of the plants are Amsterdam Prickly Seeded Spinach, a type of spinach grown in the early 19th century by Thomas Jefferson; Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, this heirloom was brought from Tennessee by the Cherokee people as they were marched to Oklahoma by the Federal Government in 1939 over the infamous “Trail of Tears”.

Come visit the heirloom gardens located on the Fort Hays site. Master Gardeners of Ellis County, Cottonwood District. Visit us at cottonwood.ksu.edu or Facebook at Ellis County Master Gardeners.