Dry Tortugas National Park is 70 miles SW from Key West. It’s a cluster of 11 islands surrounded by crystal clear water, reefs and sandy banks. Fort Jefferson was built in the mid 1800′s on Garden Key, one of the bigger islands. After a long and rather sad military history, the Dry Tortugas, along with the fort were established as a National Park in 1992.
In May of this year I was contracted to work on a historic restoration project at the fort. My mission was to consider the idea of recreating a vegetable garden within the parade ground of Fort Jefferson based on written and photographic accounts of a garden which was maintained during the fort’s period of significance, between 1846-1876. Although the original garden was not successful, this project was to take into consideration present circumstances to create an interpretive garden which could be successfully used and maintained by park staff living at the fort. The garden was to serve multiple purposes. In conjunction with recreating a historical aspect of the fort, the park service also wanted to divert waste streams such as food and garden scraps, cardboard and other biodegradable products.
During our initial scouting trip in May, I gave a slide presentation about small scale organic gardening in the sub tropics to park staff, we toured the parade ground to consider the garden site, considered watering options and took soil samples. Two months later, after a lot of planning and gathering of materials we were finally ready to take a second trip, this time to build the garden.
Melissa, the Chief of Cultural Resources at Everglades National Park, picked me up at 5am and we drove straight to Key West to catch the park boat, which was leaving from the Navy base at 10am. Almost 9 square yards of soil and wood for 6 raised beds where already loaded on the boat when we arrived. The water was sapphire blue and incredibly calm, making the boat ride feel like a cruise. We saw dolphins and lots of flying fish. The captain and crew were friendly, the boat was clean and well kept. En route we dozed off here and there trying to catch up on sleep, waking up to chat with the crew, eat snacks and enjoy the view.
Arriving at Garden Key is just amazing. Fort Jefferson appears to be floating on water and the contrast of endless blue surrounding the red brick structure is breathtaking. Thousands of Sooty Turns, a migratory bird known to only stop and nest here before returning to Africa, are swirling and squawking near the brushy sand dunes on a closely neighboring island called Bush Key.
Stepping onto the dock from the comfortable air conditioned cabin of the boat, under a blazing 3pm sun and a cloudless sky was a shock to say the least, but there were plenty of hands waiting to help unload and everyone knew what to do to get the cargo off the boat efficiently. Using electric golf carts we moved all the small stuff to the crew quarters. I remember the feeling of riding into the fort on a cart from my last trip and this time felt exactly the same. With Melissa driving, my feet up on the dash, the bumpy ride down the dock, over the moat bridge and into the dark, cool stone mouth of the 19th century fort. It’s surreal… the blinding light reflecting off the water, the sand and the brick walls, then a sudden moment of cool darkness as we cross the sally port and then brightness again as we enter the inside of the fort, this time the light is diffused by a lush green lawn sprinkled with gnarly old Buttonwoods, Gumbo Limbos and Sea Grape trees.
The crew unloaded 11 bins of soil and the wood for the garden using a crane and fork lift. By the time we laid out the boards at the garden site, it was dusk and we were hungry. We left the garden building work for the next day. To avoid the blistering heat we decided to start at the crack of dawn and take a long swimming break during the middle of the day, leaving the finishing touches for the evening. We were lucky to be there on a full moon and went for a night swim. The water was so clear and the moon so bright that I swear you could see your own toe nails in the water. It was an unforgettable experience.