Timeless idea takes root

History: The heirloom garden at the Carroll County Farm Museum showcases vegetables and other plants that date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

August 11, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Tucked into a small garden outside Westminster, overflowing with towering orange, red and green tomato plants and punch-colored hollyhocks, is an inconspicuous lima bean.

Its 16-foot vines twist up poles made from maple and willow tree branches and its crescent-shaped pods hide firm beans that turn bluish-green when cooked.

Seeds for that variety of lima bean predate the first sound movie made, The Jazz Singer. They were sown before World War I. Such lima beans were growing in the vegetable gardens of Harford County long before Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.

The bean -- whose roots have been traced at least to the early 1900s -- today is considered an "heirloom vegetable" and is included in the Carroll County Farm Museum's new garden, where visitors can see not only the food that families grew 150 years ago but the manner in which they grew it.

"We try to represent history in a way that's entertaining to people," said Pat Brodowski, the farm museum's historian and educator who also writes a weekly column for the Carroll County edition of The Sun. She began the heirloom garden last year in 70 containers on her driveway before the museum plot was ready this spring.

"We try to transport people back in time here and something like the Burr Gherkin Cucumber really does it," she said, holding a plump and prickly, chartreuse vegetable about the size of a robin's egg with a tiny tail. It looks nothing like the cucumbers most people know. Brodowski said the variety came to America with the slave trade, traveling from Africa to the West Indies and Jamaica before landing in Virginia in 1793.

"It's unusual, it's spiky and you never see anything like it today," Brodowski continued. "Then you try it, and you can't even believe how good it is, and you wonder where it's been all this time. It shows how we get so ingrained into thinking that everything we eat should look like what we see in the grocery store."

Plans for the heirloom garden sprouted several years ago when a grant-funded survey of the farm museum revealed that its gardens did not match the time period depicted at the museum -- roughly 1865 to 1915.

An heirloom garden -- featuring old varieties of fruits and vegetables grown for flavor rather than disease-resistance or the bright colors and uniform shapes of produce sold in groceries today -- would be educational, Brodowski thought. Most heirloom vegetables are not hybrids and the seeds have been passed from generation to generation and neighbor to neighbor.

"I look for unusual things with great stories so that it's more interesting than just showing it off and eating it," she said. "Although that's pretty great right now, especially Aunt Ruby's."

Aunt Ruby's German Green Tomato is a heavy and somewhat unattractive variety of beefsteak tomatoes. The plants' bulbous lobes -- they look like large growths sprouting from a central stem -- give no hint of their intense, spicy-sweet flavor.

The garden also includes a slightly mottled red tomato called the Mortgage Lifter, grown in West Virginia by a struggling radiator repairman during the Depression. He spent six seasons trying to breed a tomato that would not take much work but would produce enough fruit to pay off his mortgage.

The Giant German Grape Tomato -- or riesentraube -- swells to two and three times the size of grocery-bought grape tomatoes.

The Egyptian Walking Onion, a tubular variety used like a scallion, produces bulbs at the tips of its branches. The weight of the bulbs tips the plant over, making it "walk" and sprout new onion shafts.

And the 100-year-old Moon and Stars Watermelon, named for the bursts of yellow that speckle its deep-green skin and leaves, is famed among heirloom gardeners as the "poster child of the heirloom vegetable movement," Brodowski said. "It caught everyone's attention because it's just fascinating-looking."

In addition to vegetables, Brodowski and her team of volunteer gardeners -- including longtime gardener Joan Berends; Suzy Johnson, a fifth-generation beef farmer; emergency room nurse and master gardener Debbie Buchman; and Michal McCullogh, a recent college graduate and master gardener -- have planted edible marigolds that people in the Victorian era used for their lemony flavor and towering Candlewick plants, an ancient weed whose leaves can be stripped down to the middle rib for use as a candle wick.

Brodowski, a former teacher, freelance writer, art student and short-order cook, tries to include only plants that were grown in the region during the time period of the museum. But she lets the occasional good-story-but-out-of-place vegetable slip through.

"I have a purple carrot here that I just love," she says, carefully scooping dirt from tender, green carrot tops until purple flesh is spotted. "It's from Afghanistan and it's orange on the inside. The Dutch liked the orange center so much that they seed-selected the carrot until they were orange. Nothing suggests people grew it here, but I love it."

Jim Thomas, an acupuncturist in Westminster, brought Brodowski seeds for the Blue Lima Bean. He got them from Harford natives George and Betty Grier, who got them in the late 1930s from a neighbor whose father had grown them since the turn of the century.

"I get a kick out of seeds that other people grew," Thomas said. "In addition to a great vegetable, you get a bit of history rather than going to grocery store and going to the Burpee stand and picking out a packet of seeds."

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