Heirlooms provide history, beauty and taste
In childhood, Scott Kunst was captivated by old things, whether it was the overgrown farmhouse on his paper route or the dinosaurs he fantasized about. He dreamed of a career as an archeologist and in a way, he is.
Kunst is founder, owner and head gardener of Old House Gardens, which sells heirloom bulbs for both fall and spring planting.
“It started when I was a boy, I was always fascinated with nature,” he says.
He grew up watching his grandmother garden and was inspired by her love of plants. Heirlooms are older heritage varieties, many of which have been forgotten by the garden trade in favor of newer varieties. Kunst takes great pride in finding and preserving a fascinating array of heirloom bulbs.
The 65-year-old plant lover plans to retire after this year’s spring shipping season, turning the company over to his capable staff, but still helping out once a week in the office. When Kunst started the business in 1993, he took a different path than most on selling bulbs.
“Who in their right mind would try to sell old stuff that was getting harder and harder to find,” he says with a laugh from the company’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Dahlias are one of the most popular varieties he offers. The tender tubers can be dug and stored at the end of the season. ‘Prince Noir’ from 1954 is one of his favorites, the variety is not only filled with blooms, it’s easy to grow too.
“The flowers may be as big as your fist, a little bit bigger maybe, sort of a dark maroon color,” he says. “The petals are kind of ruffled and on the back they are a little bit lighter. You can see both colors at once which is cool.”
His discoveries come from gardens across the globe. Sometimes over the course of a generation or two, the variety can lose its name, forgotten over the years.
“I don’t really need to know the original name,” Kunst says. “If it’s a fabulous plant, it’s a fabulous plant. ‘Wisconsin Red’ is one that comes to mind; who knows what it’s name was 100 years ago.”
He often uncovers rare plants and longs to save them. Dahlias were the toast of the gardening world in the 19th century, much like hostas and daylilies are today.
“Twenty thousand named varieties were introduced in the 19th century,” he says.
‘Kaiser Wilhelm’ is one of the very few dahlias that survived; it was from the 1890s. The 4-foot-tall plant is covered in antique-style yellow and burgundy petals which are all the same size.
“It’s sort of this mathematical perfection in nature,” he says. “That’s one I love for it’s deep history and for being such a rare, rare survivor.”
He had heard about the legendary dahlia ‘Jane Cowl’ for years from customer searching for the variety and finally tracked some tubers down. Released in 1928, it’s named for a famed stage actor of the era. It might be the most expensive dahlia he sells, but it’s rare and wonderful. Large flowers are mixed with amber, bronze and gold on ruffled petals that face upward when blooming.
“Whatever your tastes are in gardening, you can find it in dahlias,” he says.
‘Whether it’s something naturalistic looking, (something) the bees are going to love, something monstrous that’s going to impress the other guys in the neighborhood, something that’s perfect for bouquets, something subtle, something flamboyant, they are all there.”
He also enjoys gladiolus, but doesn’t think they get their due. “ ‘Atom’ is one of our customers’ favorites,” he says. “It’s a small flower about half the size of regular glad, intense vibrant red with a little silvery white edge around each petal that just somehow makes it perfect. Hummingbirds just adore it.”
Mexican single tuberoses — brought into Western cultivation in 1530, but known in the Aztec world long before that — are almost unknown in gardens today. The white flowers release a pleasant scent that is stronger in the evening. Kunst’s wife won’t stand for hyacinths or heavily perfumed lilies in the house, but loves the aroma of tuberoses.
“They have a wonderful fragrance,” he says. “It always reminds me of buttered popcorn.”
In northern climates, they should be grown in containers placed in the sunniest spot in the garden. Kunst stresses that large bulbs, like the ones he sells, are a better choice for reliable blooms.
“I went into the business knowing I loved these plants,” he says choking back tears. “What I didn’t realize was that I was going to end up loving my customers. People often say to me, ‘Thanks for doing what your doing, you really enriched my garden.’ I usually say back to them, ‘Thanks to you, I couldn’t have done any of this by myself.’ ”
Seeds with stories
Since 1988, Thomas Hauch, who owns Heirloom Seeds with wife Barb, has been selling heritage seeds of vegetable and flowers.
“It started out as a hobby; it just grew more and more each year,” he says. “With the advent of the Internet it just took off.”
He started right when gardeners were discovering heirlooms in a big way and the plants have continued to gain in popularity. “It’s growing something they can’t buy in the store,” he says. “It tastes better and a lot of them have a little story or history behind them that I think people are interested in.”
The online catalog for the West Finley business, which straddles Greene and Washington counties, offers 1,400 varieties and he has a few favorites, like ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato.
“I really like the flavor,” he says. “It has a deep, almost a smokey flavor. I really think it tastes different than any other tomato.”
For frugal and adventurous gardeners, Hauch offers an heirloom rainbow blend. For $2 you get 25 seeds of black, pink, red, yellow, green, white, orange and purple tomatoes. You might not know their proper names, but they are all reliable varieties.
“You just don’t know what you’re getting; when it comes up, you’re a little surprised,” he says. “If you plant the whole pack, you’re going to get a bunch of different kinds. If they really like it, they can always save the seeds and grow it again next year.”
The website also include a wealth of information about growing these historic varieties. The site has many different collections, like an 18th century garden, medicinal herbs, herbal home remedy package and more.
‘Key Lime’ is a lettuce that stands up to heat and will last into early summer before bolting. The variety came from an elderly Texas seed saver who has been growing it all his life. His father also grew it in southern Florida where the lettuce got its name. It produces large butterheads that can weigh up to a pound and is disease resistant.
After tomatoes, the biggest seller might be beans, as they are so easy to grow. ‘Blue Lake Bush’ is the number one seller. ‘Bountiful,’ ‘Kentucky Wonder’ and ‘Old Homestead’ pole bean also are high on the list.
“You cannot compare a fresh green bean with a frozen one,” he says. “It’s one of the things that are really different.”
The greenhouse at Old Economy Village in Ambridge is filled with the sweet scent of lemon trees blooming, and the benches are filled with old-fashioned flowers in bloom. Dean Sylvester, the historical horticulturist at the site, grows lots of perennials, annuals, trees, shrubs and bulbs from the mid 19th century. The village is an historic settlement that preserves the culture of the Harmony Society, a 19th century religious community.
Tiny snowdrops are in bloom around the property; they are references to the bulbs dating back to the 1700s in Europe.
“It’s beautiful,” Sylvester says, looking out on the garden. “It’s all coming back from Mother Nature. This ground has been worked for so many years, the dirt just looks artificial.”
The garden in prime time has tomatoes on huge bush-like plants surrounded by deep green bountiful crops. ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce introduced in 1850 is grown here too and is still a staple of seed catalogs.
The flower gardens of Old Economy are one of the area’s hidden treasures. Snapdragons, peonies, old roses, herbs and more fill the beds around a stunning stone grotto which surrounds a statue of Greek goddess Harmonia. It’s a wonderful surprise to walk out of a building to see the amazing display. It’s part of the design by the founder of the community. “When they come out the door it was like the Garden of Eden, paradise,” Sylvester says.
He hopes visitors get the same thing he does when they visit the garden.
“A peaceful environment,” he says. “That’s why they were called the Harmonists, because they wanted to live in harmony. Sometimes our society is just too rush, rush rush. You can come here sit back and smell the roses,as they say.”