P.J. Karlin loves watermelon.
But not just any kind of watermelon, like the kind available in a supermarket. An old-fashioned variety tickles his fancy.
"They have this particular strain that I'm crazy about called Moon and Stars. It's kind of a darker watermelon, and they have these marks on them that literally look like (the) moon and stars," says Karlin, who has a garden on his 20 acres a few miles south of Eudora.
"They're the best watermelon, the sweetest watermelon I've ever had. They're just amazing, and they're beautiful."
Karlin, 54, is a fan of heirloom produce -- fruits and vegetables grown from non-hybridized seeds that have been carefully conserved and passed down within families for generations. Seeds that yield the kind of juicy tomatoes, sugar-sweet corn and cool cucumbers that your grandmother used to grow in her garden.
Karlin, operations manager at the Community Mercantile Co-op, 901 Iowa, has all that and more.
"I'm into different kinds of peppers. I love watermelons, I love cantaloupe. ... It's all heirlooms," he says.
Karlin is among many Lawrence-area residents who raise heirloom produce in their gardens, having cultivated a taste for their vibrant flavors and often distinctive appearances.
This weekend in Lawrence, one of Karlin's friends will share information about fruits and vegetables grown from heirloom seeds. Kent Whealy, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange -- a Decorah, Iowa-based grass-roots network of 7,500 members who maintain and distribute heirloom food crops -- will speak about his work Friday and Saturday.
Whealy, a Wellington native, is a 1969 graduate of Kansas University's School of Journalism.
Interest in raising heirloom produce in home gardens, or buying it from farmers markets, appears to be increasing nationwide.
"It's growing very quickly. You may not see them in a grocery store, but as I travel the country now, I see our varieties (of produce grown from heirloom seeds) available by name in farmers markets across the country," says Whealy (pronounced WHALE-ee), 58.
Each year, the seed catalog put out by Seed Savers Exchange is sent to 180,000 people.
Revenue from the catalog is used to permanently maintain vast, heirloom seed collections at Heritage Farm, an 890-acre garden, orchard and educational facility near Decorah.
"It's flavor and beauty, because that's what home gardeners want, and we all know what grocery store tomatoes are like," Whealy says of the booming heirloom-seed movement in the United States.
"All the breeding in the country is for those type of tomatoes right now: thick skin, solid flesh so that they can be machine harvested and shipped all across the country. That's not what home gardeners want; they want flavor."
|Kent Whealy, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, will speak and participate in several events Friday and Saturday in Lawrence.¢ Workshop and slide show, "Saving Seeds for the Future," with Kelly Kindscher, of Kansas Natural Heritage Inventory, from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, Building 21. Whealy will speak on the topic, "Seed Saving Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners." Kindscher's topic is "Saving Native Seeds for Wildflower Plantings and Prairie Restoration. Registration at the door is $10 per person. For more information, e-mail email@example.com or call 843-7058.¢ Speech and slide show, "Rescuing Heirloom Food Crops," from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday in the auditorium of Kansas University's Burge Union. Free.¢ Community dinner, featuring a meal of locally and organically grown foods, served from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday at Ecumenical Christian Ministries, 1204 Oread Ave. After dinner, Whealy will share his slide show and presentation on the importance of rescuing heirloom food crops. Cost of dinner is $5 per person, $3 for children 10 and under, with a special children's buffet being served. No reservations required for dinner. For more information, call the Community Mercantile Co-op 843-8544.¢ Members Day, all day Saturday, at the Community Mercantile Co-op, 901 Iowa. Opportunity to visit with Whealy and members of Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance.To learn more about Whealy and Seed Savers Exchange, go online to www.seedsavers.org.|
Whealy, who founded the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange in 1975 and started developing Heritage Farm in 1986, has close ties to Lawrence.
His younger brother, Keith Whealy, lives here and works for the city's water department.
The Whealy brothers have been friends with Karlin since the early 1970s.
"They're my best friends. We're very close," Karlin says.
All of the heirloom seeds Karlin plants in his Eudora garden come from Seed Savers Exchange.
"This (trip to Lawrence) is kind of a homecoming for Kent. He comes back to visit, but he's never done anything like this (speaking publicly) here before," Karlin says.
Greater genetic diversity
Karlin isn't the only fan of Seed Savers Exchange in the Lawrence area.
So is Paul Johnson, one of the founding members of Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance, a seasonal produce subscription service with 300 customers, including 200 in Douglas County.
Johnson grows a wide variety of heirloom produce on his East Stonehouse Creek Farm in Jefferson County.
He's been a member of Seed Savers Exchange for three or four years.
"I would say about half of the summer crops I'm going to grow this year will be out of his (Whealy's) catalog," Johnson says.
Among the produce he plans to grow from heirloom seeds purchased from the Seed Savers Exchange catalog are: Black Beauty Zucchini Squash, Golden Zucchini Squash, Amish Melons (cantaloupe), A & C Pickling Cucumber, various watermelons and Kentucky Wonder Bush (Commodore) Beans.
"I'm excited about the greater genetic diversity here; I like holding onto that kind of (heirloom) heritage. I also think it has the potential to be a little more regionally adaptable," Johnson says.
Barbara Clark, of Maggie's Farm, 2050 E. 1550 Road, uses a variety of heirloom seeds -- some from Seed Savers Exchange -- to grow garlic, fingerling potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs.
"One of my favorites (among the tomatoes) is called Striped Cavern. It's a big slicer that has a variegated flesh; it's red and yellow. It's an absolutely gorgeous tomato, and it's got great, great flavor," Clark says.
Other tomato varieties she likes from Whealy's catalog are Tommy Toe and Garden Peach.
Clark's produce (especially her tomato seedlings) are a hit at the Lawrence Farmers Market, 1000 Vt., where she's been a vendor for nearly eight years.
"I think people really do seek them (heirlooms) out. They've been around obviously for a long, long time. They're passed on from generation to generation," Clark says.
"But they've sort of been mainstreamed now, through farmers markets and that sort of thing, so people are beginning to know more about their flavors."