At the Atkins-Johnson Farm and Museum in Gladstone, the vegetables are more than fresh, they are historically accurate.
The Greater Kansas City Master Gardeners sponsors a demonstration heritage vegetable garden at the site. The garden, apple orchard, pumpkin patch and the farm’s historic home will be open for free public tours Thursday, June 15.
Master gardener Frank Newkirk, who manages the demonstration garden, explains what makes an heirloom garden unique and what to consider if you want to plant your own heirloom vegetables.
Q. What is a master gardener?
A. You can become a master gardener by taking a 16-week course from the University of Missouri. It’s like a little college class. It covers structure of the soil, what chemically goes on in the soil, plants, plant propagations, fertilizers, shrubs, wildlife that might bother your gardens. It covers trees and woody ornamentals, lawns, grasses, just everything that has to do with anything horticultural.
After you complete the course you have to donate 45 hours of volunteer work in the first year. After the first year it’s 25 hours of volunteer work.
Q. Why did you decide to become a master gardener?
A. My wife and I were in the class of 2012 after we both retired from our careers. We had always wanted to do this, but we never had the time to take the 16-week course before that.
We are both from farm backgrounds. My wife is from central Nebraska, and I am from southern Missouri. We both grew up with gardens and farm life.
Q. What are the demonstration gardens?
A. There are 17 community projects around Kansas City. They are for people to work in and observe. Watkins Mill also has a heritage vegetable garden. There is a garden on the Plaza at Theis Park with native flowers.
One of our projects is to take care of the landscaping at the Truman home. Swope Park has a garden with flowers. They test a lot of the newer flowers there.
Q. What is the project at the Atkins-Johnson Farm about?
A. The Atkins-Johnson farm is a 22-acre farm owned by Gladstone. We have a 65-by-65-foot heirloom garden there. We grow vegetables that would have been grown back in the period when it was an active farm. It helps the historic site create the atmosphere it would have had.
The definition of an heirloom garden varies from place to place, but at Atkins-Johnson we basically grow vegetables that were discovered before 1920. Most are before 1900. These would be vegetables that are non-hybrid.
Q. What’s the difference between heirloom vegetables and those in the grocery store?
A. The flavor is excellent. These survived years and years of farm life. They are cracked. They aren’t beautiful, but the taste is wonderful. Many of these vegetables are better-tasting than the ones you will see in the grocery store. In later years, hybrids were farmed in order to make the vegetables easier to grow and ship for market.
Q. What vegetables are not familiar to today’s generation?
A. Kohlrabi. It is kind of like a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. It is a round ball that is purple and white and grows above the ground. I grew up on a poor farm in the Ozarks. We had it, but so many people today don’t even know what it is.
Parsnips is another one that a lot of people are not familiar with.
Q. How did you find the heirloom varieties?
A. We used the Watkins Mill kitchen garden. They have vegetables that date back to before 1885.
Q. What are the challenges of growing heirloom vegetables?
A. They grow just about like other vegetables. Most are not disease-resistant. Some of the newer hybrids have been bred to be disease-resistant. We have to pay better attention to rotating crops from one part of the garden to another each year.
Q. Where is a good place for novices to start growing heirloom vegetables?
A. You need a sunny spot, because gardens don’t grow in the shade, and a good mix of organic material in the soil.
Then I would go to the University of Missouri website. They have a lot of information about gardening. Master Gardeners of Kansas City also has a telephone line people can call for information. It is manned by master gardeners every day. The phone number is 816-833-TREE (8733).
Q. What vegetables are easy to get started with in a vegetable garden?
A. Start with things that can go into the garden very early in the season. Lettuce, spinach and salad greens or onions are very easy to grow.
Tomatoes are very easy to grow, but you might have squirrels get into them. You can plant lettuce and onions as early as you can grow in the garden. Broccoli is fun as well as cabbage.
Our summers can get so hot and dry that cool season crops seem to do better, and they are through with their growth cycle by the time the hot weather hits. It’s a little more fun to garden in the cool weather too.
A visit to the farm
The Atkins-Johnson Farm and Museum, 6607 N.E. Antioch Road, Gladstone, will open its historic garden and house for free public tours 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 15. Online preregistration is required at mggkc.org.