By Rachael Graf, Community Engagement Coordinator at Outer Banks Forever
While exploring the grounds of Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, you may come across a raised garden bed filled with plants such as corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and herbs, especially in the summer months.
“What is this?” you might ask yourself. “And why is it here?”
This is the new Education Garden, a project made possible through a collaboration between Roanoke Island community members, the National Park Service and Outer Banks Forever, the official nonprofit partner of the three Outer Banks national parks.
“The goal of the garden is to enhance the public’s understanding of Outer Banks history and to help our park better tell the diverse, important stories of the people who shaped our community,” said Jessica Barnes, director of Outer Banks Forever. “The storytelling around the garden also emphasizes the role women played in leading, organizing and performing agriculture.”
The garden is the result of the inspiration and enthusiasm of Mona Currie, a retired nurse and Manteo resident, who is a long-time volunteer with the National Park Service’s VIP (Volunteers in Parks) program at Fort Raleigh and a member of the Roanoke Island Garden Club. Since people of Algonquin, European and African heritage have called, and still call, Roanoke Island home, the crops grown in the garden are intended to help represent and honor those cultures.
“I initiated the garden to create a touchable display of life in historic periods on Roanoke Island,” said Currie. “Because children – in particular – remember what they can touch and feel, which helps them connect with the brave souls who lived here in the past.”
Currie is the primary caretaker and storyteller for the garden, something she is passionate about.
“We show visitors how food was grown in various historical periods, explaining, for example, how American Indians grew what are called the ‘Three Sisters’: corn, beans and squash,” said Currie. “Planting them this way lets the plants work together. The corn stalks provide a natural bean pole. The beans can climb and get more sunlight, enabling the bean crop to flourish.
“Some visitors remember hearing this back in elementary school. For others, particularly younger folks, this is new information, and they love that Fort Raleigh is showcasing planting techniques from long ago for them to see and appreciate.”
With the help of Currie, National Park Service employees, community volunteers and funding from Outer Banks Forever donors, the garden was introduced to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in the summer of 2022, and has been a work in progress ever since. New signs around the garden explain the agricultural contributions and legacies of Algonquian, European and African peoples to the Roanoke Island community and beyond.
“The Education Garden has been an amazing addition to Fort Raleigh,” said Adair Raybon, park ranger with the National Park Service. “We often saw visitors interacting with the garden this year, smelling herbs and counting butterflies. The sunflowers were a huge hit this summer!”
This year, in Currie’s view, was a good year for the garden – but it was not without its challenges.
“Overall, we had good growing seasons this year, with bountiful sunflowers. We had a great production of beans, squash and herbs in particular. Corn plants grew tall and were productive early on. Elizabethan Gardens continues to support us with advice and greenhouse space for sprouting, as needed,” said Currie. “We had some watering challenges during the heat of August, which had an impact on the corn crop’s second planting. The corn still grew tall but was less productive in late summer.”
In October, Currie and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site partnered with the Roanoke Island Garden Club as part of the club’s “Sustainable Gardens, Sustainable Island” bilingual (English and Spanish) exhibit at the Manteo Library, which featured the gardening practices of nine Roanoke Island organizations: Babin Apiary, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Island Farm, Peace Garden Project, Roanoke Island Community Garden, Roanoke Island Festival Park, Secotan Market and Elizabethan Gardens.
“’Sustainable Gardens, Sustainable Island’ reflected an island-wide interest in sustainable gardening on Roanoke Island,” said Beverly Firme, member of the Roanoke Island Garden Club. “Each organization had either supported horticulture locally or had used one or more sustainable practices to grow flowers, herbs, fruits, or vegetables such as pollinator gardens, cover crops, permaculture techniques, hydroponic, no till, organic or raised-bed gardening, seed saving or sharing resources.”
According to Firme and Currie, the exhibit was popular with the Roanoke Island community and beyond, as it also gained attention on social media, enabling the stories of the gardens to spread.
Since its introduction to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Currie has experienced firsthand how the Education Garden has helped visitors to understand the stories the park preserves.
“The garden always needs a little tending, which quite often leads to opportunities to explain the growing practices in the historical periods we reflect,” said Currie. She noted that the questions she is asked most often are about the Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island.
“Visitors are always curious about how the Freedmen’s Colony came about and what the experiences were for the many who came to it for safe shelter and a new start,” Currie said. “Many visitors say our talk is the first time they learned about it.”
As the garden was created in partnership with members of the local Outer Banks community, its purpose is not only to serve as a new and engaging way for people to learn about the history of Roanoke Island and agriculture on the Outer Banks, but to give back to the community in which it has its roots.
“We donated garden produce throughout the harvest season to the Roanoke Island Food Pantry,” said Currie. “Beans, squash, collards and turnip greens were all received with appreciation.”
Now that winter is here and the garden lies dormant, Currie and other volunteers are drying and saving seeds to replant in the spring when the garden – and the stories it helps tell – will once again come to life.
“Roanoke Island has been and is home to such a diversity of people, all who left a legacy that influenced what our community looks like today,” said Barnes. “This project helps highlight the lives and challenges of the Algonquin people who originally inhabited the island, the English colonists who travelled great distances to explore the island and the brave families of the Freedmen’s Colony who experienced their first light of freedom here. We are grateful everyone who helped make a project like this possible.”