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Georgia Department of Agriculture

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UGA Heritage Garden Curator Gareth Crosby, front, pauses for a photo in a stand of Star of David okra with Groundskeeper Kylie Hamlin and Assistant Jim Moneyhun. (Amy Carter/GDA)

Good to Grow: Heritage Garden grows Georgia history

By Jay Jones

Georgia's history grows in the Heritage Garden in Athens, tracing how people cultivated food from Native Americans to P.J. Berkman's nursery in Augusta. Located in the State Botanical Garden at the University of Georgia, the Heritage Garden is a living tour of Georgia that provides a place for plants that made their mark on the state.

Georgia is known as the Peach State, but that would not have happened without Berkman, said Gareth Crosby, Heritage Garden curator. "Berkman is the father of the peach as we know it in Georgia," she said. "Because of the heat and humidity peaches were susceptible to fungal disease, so he collected cultivars and developed new cultivators that could stand up to the heat."

After the Civil War, Berkman built his Fruitland Nursery business through a mail-order catalog that sold peach and apple trees along with pears and plums trees and hundreds of other plants, trees and ornamentals. Many of the plant cultivars developed by Berkman sold still grow in Georgia. The Fruitland Nursery property was sold by the Berkman Family in the late 1920s, and became the Augusta National Golf Club.

The method of grafting and splicing cultivars to create new plant subspecies is also part of Georgia's agriculture history. Crosby explained that growers were always looking for plants that would thrive in Georgia. That meant plants introduced to Georgia in the 1800s were grafted to different varieties of the species to make hardier versions. That grafting over the years meant it has become harder to find originals.

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A detailed close-up of an okra pod

"Back then, horticulture was all about the next new thing, so that makes it harder to find older cultivars," Crosby said. "I'm looking for Camellias now (because) we have this old, old cultivar in the nursery that is about finished. I've looked all over, calling other heritage gardens to find one. Last week, I put in a call to Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia) to see if they had one."

In a nod to Victorian-era gardens, a fountain topped by a bittern sculpture is at the Heritage Garden center. The garden has four parts that include an orchard and sections for ornamentals, native plants, fruits and vegetables.

The public can walk the garden grounds seven days a week and see what grows and what can inspire. Crosby holds grafting pruning classes along with conducting tours and garden rambles. She hopes to develop a course on the functional uses of plants. A variety of sorghum was grown for more than a century specifically to make brooms. Other plants were grown for fibers and dyes.

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A stalk of Star of David Okra growing in the garden

The vegetable sector is a working garden that has a plant pallet for each growing season. Crosby said they are now working on the fall garden and will plant garlic onions, leaks and different types of collards, like Ole-Timey Blue and Morris Heading.

"We grow parsnips, too, and I encourage everyone to try then. They look like a white carrot but are sweeter than a carrot," she said. They save seeds each year for a seed bank in the garden. Crosby said saving seeds is not only a long-held tradition, but it is also an excellent method for selecting the best and brightest from the garden.

"I always use the biggest and brightest tomato for seeds because you know you're going to get more," she said. "With squash, I usually have to grab the first (one) because you never know if you're going to get any more good ones."

The State Botanical Garden at the University of Georgia is located south of downtown Athens at 2450 S. Milledge Ave. The ground and gardens are open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, call 706.542.1244 or go to

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