It’s all about the taste.
The symphony of tangy sweetness that is the first bite into an heirloom tomato turns otherwise ordinary people into gardening fanatics.
Some, like Kevin Scaggs, will spend a lifetime collecting, cataloguing and growing scores of tomato varieties, carefully preserving the seeds and then giving them away to strangers.
Others, like Connie Devore of Crown City, Ohio, will hop in their cars and drive wherever they have to go in order to score a new seed strain.
In Devore’s case, it was well over an hour on the road Saturday to get to Raceland High School, where she attended the first-ever Appalachian Folk and Heritage Conference. She ended up at Scaggs’ table in the cafeteria, gazing hungrily at seed packets and leafing through a few seed catalogs.
“I am crazy about heirloom seeds,” Devore said, offering a stranger a baggie with some of her own, a variety called “Cherokee Purple.”
The name reflects their color and her own heritage, she said. According to Devore, their taste is incomparable, but she mainly wanted to talk about the virtues of heirloom vegetables and growing them as organically as possible. “We’ve developed genetically modified seeds, which are poisonous to us and our land and our soil.
“We should keep the soil the way our ancestors and the Lord provided it to us,” she said.
Heirloom vegetables are varieties not produced through hybridization but handed down by farmers and gardeners to their children and friends, Scaggs explained.
He grows more than 20 different kinds of tomatoes and more than a dozen kinds of beans on the 50- by 160-foot garden plot he and his wife Cathy have behind their home on Main Street in Greenup.
“Heirloom” is an apropos term for Scaggs’ approach to growing vegetables. He’s been at it since he was in high school in the early 1980s, when he planted some green tomatoes he got from his grandparents.
The green tomatoes are particularly good for frying, and he continues to grow them. In the intervening years, he has collected scores of other varieties, the seeds of which he painstakingly stores in labeled envelopes.
Scaggs has red tomatoes, to be sure, but also white, yellow, pink, green, black and multi-hued ones.
One of his favorites is the Carrie Claxon, a big orange tomato named after the mother of the late former Greenup County judge-executive Ervin Claxon.
He has other seeds he can trace back to the 1920s, including a bean variety he calls Pearl Carter. That goes back to 1926, he said.
By now, Scaggs is well known as a seed saver, and other enthusiasts tend to seek him out and hand him samples of their own prized varieties. On his table at the conference were eight kinds of beans he’d received out of the blue from a man who saw a previous newspaper story about him.
He doesn’t sell them; he gives them away. He encourages others to share their seeds too, especially if they are family heirloom varieties.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2652.
It’s all about the taste.
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