Heirloom gardens take root

By MARG JACKSON
They are not as scarce as you might think – heirloom gardeners have created quite a niche in the 209 and their numbers are growing.

Among them is Terry Harper of Riverbank, a longtime heirloom gardener who says there are many reasons to get involved, not the least of which are great taste and better health.

Growing a garden with ‘heirloom’ seeds – those that are handed down from generation to generation – typically yields a larger, purer plant and Harper said the fresh taste is hard to beat. The process requires saving some seeds from your plants at each harvest, keeping them until time for planting the next year.

“We’re always looking for new members,” Harper said, noting that the local Riverbank Heirloom Garden Club rotates their meetings to homes and gardens of club members. “We’re not associated with anybody, any specific group, we’re just a group of people that like to garden.”

Current members in the Riverbank Heirloom Garden Club include residents from Riverbank, Oakdale, Waterford, Ceres, Ripon, Escalon and more.

“We get people from all around,” said Harper.

One of the best things about the club, he added, is that several members have areas of expertise and they all share information and often swap seeds to increase the variety in their gardens.

One member can answer almost any question on bugs and how to keep them from taking over your garden; another is a plant specialist that can assist in deciding how best to place the plants for optimum growth.

“They are pure plants, handed down for hundreds of years,” Harper said of the varieties grown by club members. “They’ve got more nutrition.”

Newcomers can give it a try, often with some seeds provided by members, but Harper said they have to be committed to the craft, keeping the plants separated so there isn’t any unintended cross-pollination, say from a couple different varieties of corn.

Each heirloom seed group must be protected so they stay pure.

“You grow heirloom tomatoes, they are juicy, sweet, tender, more vitamins in them than the commercially grown variety,” Harper explained. “Commercial growers have to pick them when they are still pink because they have to ship them all over the country … ours are vine ripe.”

His own heirloom collection includes tomatoes, beets, carrots, onions, garlic, leeks and more.

Also unique in the heirloom gardening world, the plants are acclimated to the Central Valley climate, having grown and thrived here for years.

“We’ve got them acclimated, we know they’ll grow well,” noted Harper.

In some cases, heirloom gardeners can put in two crops a year with the traditional late spring planting and a ‘winter’ planting that is done in September.

“We typically have three or four types of gardening we do, either a four-square foot garden, raised bed, row gardening or container gardening,” Harper said.

The type is most often determined by the space available, with some residents in housing complexes having to go the container garden route, while those with property can opt for the row gardening to stretch things out.

“We had a garden when I was a kid, I had to hoe the garden and pick crops, then my dad would take them into town and sell them,” Harper said of his early introduction to the craft. “With the garden we have now, we don’t have a lot of land so this supplements what we buy in the store.”

But from taste to appearance to nutrition, Harper said there’s no doubt which crops come from the heirloom seeds.

“If someone wants to be a member of the club, we’ll teach them how to dry and save their seeds, how to store them for the next year,” he said. “Our garden club is free, has no dues, no president, just a group of people that like to grow vegetables.”

There are also classes in how to save harvested vegetables, whether you want to can them, freeze them or dehydrate them. When they have an abundance, members of the club make sure to share them with senior citizen groups in area communities, spreading the wealth.

Regular meetings are scheduled the last Wednesday of each month and Harper said anyone interested in more information about the Riverbank Heirloom Garden Club or just heirloom gardening in general can contact him at 209-869-1325.

“Anybody is welcome anytime,” said Harper of encouraging new members.

The concept of heirloom gardening is one that has been around for generations and Harper said he thoroughly enjoys the people involved and the process itself.

“I keep my garden heavily mulched because I don’t like to pick weeds, and I have it on an automatic waterer that goes two times a week,” Harper added with a smile. “All I do is plant and harvest.”

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