After a few days of this creative hauling, the garden boxes and barrels were filled and ready for planting, and the following afternoon, Mama put on her straw hat and invited us to help her in the garden. While Marian sat on a small quilt nearby, Jacob, Paul, and I poked the seeds into the warm earth. The vegetables were planted in the boxes and in two of the barrels. Two other barrels got flower seeds, and Mama had had the men move the last two barrels to the front of the lighthouse – facing the sea – and we planted the prettiest flowers there.
“Do you like flowers?” Paul asked, patting Uncle Richard’s sleeve with his dirty hand.
(Excerpt from Lighthouse Loyalty, Chapter 8)
While reading about lighthouse keepers and their families, it was a common thread to find them searching for ways to brighten their routine days and add some color to their surroundings. Gardening became a practical and pretty pastime for keepers or their families, and gardens grew in some of the most inhospitable places for plants, thanks to the care of men, women, and children who longed for the simple colors and joys life.
Here are a few of my favorite accounts about lighthouse gardens, and yes, the fictional Arnold Family plants a garden in my historical novel!
Mount Desert Rock’s Flowers
In the late 1850’s on Mount Desert Rock, offshore in Maine, a keeper’s wife wanted to see some flowers growing in her rocky “yard.” She puzzled how she could plant flowers that would survive the rough conditions and eventually came up with a novel idea. She packed good soil into the crevices of the rocks that make the island and planted the small flowers there.
The plants grew, sheltered and protected by the rocks, with just enough soil and water to survive. The bright flowers became a sort of landmark for the lighthouse island, and passing sailors called it “God’s Rock Garden.”
The Kitchen Garden
If a there was suitable soil and conditions for a garden at a light station, there was usually a kitchen garden – or a vegetable garden, as we might call it. Fresh produce was a welcome addition to the basic food supply kept at the lighthouse. Root vegetables could be stored in a dry place to last many months while other vegetables could be canned, pickled, or dried.
At a lighthouse, there usually wasn’t a market or neighbors close by, so a family relied on their supplies brought by the lighthouse tender boat and purchased supplies. Planting a kitchen garden allowed the keepers to extend the food supply and add variety to their diet.
Gardens In A Box
If there was good soil available but not in an ideal place for a garden, garden boxes might have been a solution. It would also help keep soil from washing away during rains.
And if all else failed and an outdoor garden was simply impossible (or kept getting washed away) a small can or box could make a cheery window garden for a few flowers to brighten the inside of a lighthouse.
Let Me Have A Little Garden
Enjoy the flowers in the spring and summer. Dry them for the autumn and winter. Whether it was gardening for food or for beauty, growing plants provided delights for those living at lighthouses. It wasn’t a required duty; it was a helpful pleasure, just like many of us find relaxation and joy in our own gardens.
Perhaps the English writer Beatrix Potter wrote it well when she described gardening in a simple poem for children. It reminded me of how how lighthouse children and keepers might have tended their gardens, eagerly watching for the first signs of new plants, marveling at the blooms, and harvesting the ripe foods.
We have a little garden,
A garden of our own,
And every day we water there
The seeds that we have sown.
We love our little garden,
And tend it with such care,
You will not find a faded leaf
Or blighted blossom there.