Heirloom seeds help Higgins persevere

Staff writer

Sherri Higgins of rural Marion has had some setbacks in life, but one way or another she has always persevered. Gardening in central Kansas also brings with it a certain set of difficulties, but with heirloom seeds and an inability to sit still, Higgins has found a way to grow and persevere, in life and in gardening.

“Normally at this time I already have my tomato seedlings planted,” she said. “But the weather just has not cooperated at all this past year. That, plus the fact that the wind blew the roof off my greenhouse a little while back; it’s been difficult.”

Higgins, married to Kerry Higgins, grew up near Rapid City in South Dakota and learned to garden from her father.

“My dad was always a gardener,” she said. “I guess it’s in my blood, we both love digging in the dirt.”

When Higgins parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Marion County and has been here ever since. As a single mother, she needed a way to support her family and took up a welding career. Her children are now grown and she is retired, but always Higgins has found a way to grow a garden and provide food for her family.

“I’ve never been any good at sitting around,” Higgins said. “I like to have a big garden, with pole beans, squash, lots of herbs, and of course, tomatoes.”

Higgins likes to make her own fresh tomato salsa, so her choice of plant varieties runs the gamut from yellow, white, green striped, to even black and then red tomatoes.

“I’ve always liked odd things,” she said. “But I love to grow the heirloom tomatoes instead of the hybrid varieties because the depth of flavor is just amazing. The color of my fresh salsa when I use all those different tomatoes is just beautiful.”

Higgins said it was harder to grow heirloom tomatoes because they did not have the genetically engineered disease resistant traits that most common red hybrids now have.

“The heirloom tomatoes are hard to find because most customers want a sure thing,” she said. “The ones I like are just more tender and harder to grow. I used to depend on Sharon (Boese – The Garden Center in Hillsboro) to help me get what I wanted, but I am going to really miss her this year. I will have to be sure to collect more of my own seeds from my stock that I have to save for future years.”

As an heirloom gardener, Higgins is experienced in collecting, drying, and storing seeds for the future. She said she lets the tomatoes ripen on the vine that she plans to save as seed stock, then brings them in the house, cuts them in half, and squeezes out the seeds into a strainer.

“I put the seeds in little jars with some water for several days,” she said. “The good seeds fall to the bottom and mold grows on the bad stuff at the top. What actually is happening is that the water is dissolving that membrane that surrounds the seeds. As it rises to the top, I scoop that off. After a few days, all that is left is the good seeds on the bottom. I pour those through some fine strainers, then wrap in paper towels and set them out to dry.”

After a short drying stage in the paper towels, Higgins said she collects the seeds in wire tea strainers and hangs them up to air dry.

“I shake them in the tea leaf contraptions every day so that they don’t get stuck together,” she said. “There is still some moisture, especially in the middle of the clump, so it’s important to make sure they get moved around to dry.”

Higgins said she works to prepare her garden soil all year round, moving fertilizer mixed with bedding from her chicken and goat pens into the garden, when she is cleaning those facilities.

“The chickens and goats are a great help with my gardening,” she said. “I put straw in the chicken pen and they just rip it to shreds, plus mix in their own contributions, by the time I scoop it out it is just fine chaff, perfect for mixing into my garden soil. Same with the goats, their manure is the best for the garden, not too strong, not too heavy; just right for growing great vegetables.”

In addition to growing heirloom tomatoes, Higgins said she grows heirloom pumpkins as well.

“I didn’t do too well with the pumpkins this past year,” she said. “The heat was just too much for them. Same with the tomatoes, the early ones set on, but the later one didn’t even blossom. They just burned up out there.”

Like all gardeners at heart, Higgins is hoping for better weather conditions for her garden this year. But if setbacks continue, she will still be out there digging in the dirt.

“We just put all our money in a new roof for the house, so we probably won’t be able to fix the greenhouse for a while yet,” she said. “I’ll just use it the way it is. I need to get those seeds started so I can put my tomato seedlings out when the ground warms up.”

 

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