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Gardeners attracted to heirloom seeds

By Staff | Apr 7, 2014

SONDRA KRUEGER FELDSTEIN, right, of SalAmander Farms, in Bondurant, answers a question from Mierra Fawcett, of Sioux City, interested in establishing a family community garden with heirloom vegetables. Feldstein was one of several presenters at the March 29 and March 30 Siouxland Garden Show, in Sioux City.

SIOUX CITY – Imagine, if you will, having beans in your garden “descendents,” so to speak, of those relied on by members of the Cherokee Indians on their grueling 1838 Trail of Tears walk from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma.

Or, perhaps you want to plant potatoes reminiscent of the lone variety of potato put into the gardens of Ireland prior to the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849 when millions of the Irish died.

An interest in history is but one of the reasons Sondra Krueger Feldstein, of SalAmander Farms, in Boundrant, says accounts for her entry into the world of heirloom seeds. She explained her beginning of her quest of seed history and the garden produce now coming from her gardens as she prepared to share her story on March 29 and March 30 at the Siouxland Garden Show in Sioux City.

A native of northeast Missouri who put down her own roots in Iowa in 1990 following time spent in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Feldstein said her desire to do something at home and to allow her children to experience the joys of gardening was instrumental in what has become a significant part of her life.

Helping to solidify that interest – fostered in part by what she termed her background in history – was her early interest in farmers’ markets, interaction with the Practical Farmers of Iowa and the now-popular Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. A Seed Savers member since 1995, her experiences with the organization have evolved to the point she now lists her own 120 varieties of heirloom seeds among the worldwide listings offered by the organization.

“I’ve discovered through the years a lot of people, if they like to garden at all, have become attracted to the heirlooms,” Feldstein said. “They have so many great stories behind them and, yes, they tend to taste pretty good.

“Heirlooms can admittedly be a challenge in that as with the heirloom tomato, a plant can be monstrous, and there’s no telling how tall they’ll grow. My own trellises are only 5 feet high, and I’m pretty sure the tomatoes would keep going if I had a taller trellis.”

“Heirlooms are fun to grow for there’re so many colors,” she added. “My kids have grown up eating these things. There’s been more than once they’ve have come home from school to tell me of other kids suggesting there’s no such thing as a purple potato for instance. Their response to this has been, ‘Oh, yes, there are. My mom grows them all the time.'”

Her passion for heirlooms has spread to her friends. One, a caterer, wanted multi-colored tomatoes for a wedding bridal brunch.

“She came to me and purchased green, orange and purple tomatoes and even some red ones and proceeded to prepare the beautiful presentation for the luncheon,” she said.

Another benefit to heirlooms, Feldstein said, is that they can become a practical part of good garden management.

Plants as well as people rely on germ plasm to survive she said.

“You’ll find that in a garden there are a lot of diseases and insects, all kinds of things trying to kill your plants all the time, that there’s always something somewhere that Mother Nature has made subject to that disease or insect,” Feldstein said.

“When you’ve got a lot of diversity in your garden as with in your own body, the plants will have a much better chance of surviving what Mother Nature is giving you in a given year,”she said.

So in addition to planting heirlooms, Feldstein also rotates varieties of vegetables to achieve diversified plant genetics and better survivability.

Feldstein said she has encouraged teachers to introduce heirloom seed projects into their classrooms.

“It’s a good way for them … to incorporate their usage into the study of history and science, for example as with the Trail of Tears and Irish Famine incidents and what life was like then,” she said.

Heirlooms have made their way, too, into the world of mathematics classes with students growing different potato varieties, then weighing the beginning and ending quantities, she said.

Heirloom gardens are, Feldstein said, growing in popularity among those of all ages.

“There are a lot of people who’ve been gardening a lot time who have become interested. And, at the same time we are seeing more and more families becoming interested in this type of gardening. They feel they want to give their kids really fresh food because it’s a lot easier for them to get them to eat food that tastes good,” Feldstein said.

“In the case of heirlooms, the produce not only tastes good, it’s healthy and the kids have helped to grow it themselves,” she added, pointing to her own experience as a mother. “Our children are older now, but I can remember when they were younger always asking where the snap peas were planted.

“Then, like a herd of giant eating rabbits they were making a quick walk down the designated rows. When it came time to shelling the peas for the freezer, the only ones to make it in the boxes were usually the ones I shelled.”

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