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Secret Garden founder shares her horticultural wizardry

Anne Morgan, a strong proponent of heirloom plant varieties, holds a flat with a week’s growth of veggies. She recommends planting two days before the full moon for best germination.(Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

By Jean Ruzicka

Anne Morgan’s spirit blossoms as she begins to enumerate the qualities of heirloom seeds.

“There are so many varieties of seeds available,” the self-taught organic farmer said, citing a favorite, certified Prairie Road Organic Seed, based in Fullerton, N.D.

“How fun to try seed from someone who’s diligently doing seed breeding,” she said. “Or from a neighbor, a grandma…”

Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, meaning that unlike hybrids, seeds the gardener collects from one year will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant. And that’s key to their survival.

“Heirloom seeds renew themselves,” she explained “Hybridization is great, but like animal inbreeding, they will ultimately deteriorate.”

“Get an heirloom bred for the northern latitude,” she advises. “Heirlooms are zone specific (Hubbard County being Zone 3).

Summer at its peak will see 18 hours of light, she points out of the 47-degree latitude. An onion growing in Florida will be exposed to 14 hours of sunlight.

If you bring a Florida heirloom onion up here it will be out of its element,” said the Ailsa Craig fan - “a fantastic onion.”

Morgan is a proponent of Johnny’s and Fedco seed catalogs, both based in Maine. Granted, it’s coastal, she said, but the same latitude.

“Watch where they trial their seeds,” she advises of catalogs.

“If you order from Iowa, you have to be careful,” she counsels of changes in latitude. “That open-pollinated plant may not be happy.”

But she’s a devotee of European-imported seed. “Amazing,” Anne said, noting seeds are now part of the global economy, breeds being shipped to North and South America alike.

“Plant for zone three, then you won’t have the heartache. Try a peach tree; but just plant one.”

Heirlooms can be tricky, Morgan admits, but when you find one (a winner) keep growing it. “Give it to your friends. Multiply it out.”

Winter Density lettuce – a seed you won’t find in stores - is a Morgan favorite. Because lettuce won’t germinate when it becomes hot, Anne plants another flat at the end of June - not in full sunlight - and transplants it at two to three inches.

“You have a fresh head of lettuce in August and have extended the season to September.”

Heirloom seeds hold much more variety, Anne points out of the plants’ “attributes, tastes and shapes.”

Plant two days before a full moon for best germination, the seasoned gardener recommends.

Husband Dewane has kept records of weather – rain and temperature – since 1976. The markers of the season remain the same, Anne said of birds returning and budding aspen and oak.

“But when nature says ‘go’ varies. The first of May is way too early,” she said, as this week’s weather validates. Potatoes were going into the ground this week. “But carrots and beets will depend on the rain.”

Despite years of charting the last frost, a planting prognostication is not in the Morgan forecast.

Dewane “refuses to give a prediction.”

Guidance on dirt and ‘food’

Anne offers advice on creating the most successful potting soil, at least cost. She recommends Professional Mix, which is available at Forest and Floral, composed of peat, bark perlite and vermiculite. She uses the blend with no artificial fertilizer, fungicide or herbicide.

She then adds “food” to the soil - compost, black dirt, fish emulsion or organically-fed worm castings – four parts soil to one part “food.”

She fills a flat, defining the planting lines with her knuckles then drops in the seed. Seeds are a ¾-inch apart, rows two inches. She starts tomatoes and peppers in flats, moving them to pots at four or five inches.

Pot size should be determined by the plant. “Roots shouldn’t grow out of the pot.” Recycled cottage cheese or yogurt containers, for example, with drainage holes can be used.

“Use your imagination,” she said of pots. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Eggplant, onions zucchini, watermelon and cantaloupe emerge indoors then it’s off to the hoop house to acclimate.

She builds a low tunnel hoop house to prevent damage from Mother Nature’s sometimes ornery propensities.

A seven-foot wire becomes an arch, but a log or a bucket will serve to hold the poly cover.

On a windy day, she opens ends only. At night, the fledgling plants are under cover. “There’s no reason to let them suffer.”

Nothing to unlearn

Anne and Dewane Morgan arrived on the Hubbard Prairie in 1972, determined to farm organically.

The first year – Anne, a novice (“I had no bad habits to unlearn”) and Dewane, with just a modicum of experience – “was a disaster.

“A woodchuck wiped us out.”

Undeterred, they tried the next year. Before long, they “had all the food for the family,” canning, freezing and dehydrating to preserve the garden’s bounty.

By the 1990s, the Morgans offered u-pick raspberries and had vegetables to sell. The farm became home to Consumer-Supported Agriculture (CSA) in 2000, providing customers a means to buy local, seasonal produce directly from the farmer.

Their CSA shares increased to 120 between Park Rapids and Fargo customers, 3.5 acres producing the edibles at the peak.

The Morgans discontinued the CSA two years ago.

The gardens needed a rest as did the workers, Anne said. A third of the garden is now home to raspberries, some of the property has become a “family garden, and the remaining is in “rest and restoration,” home to alfalfa.

Alfalfa’s deep root hairs stimulate decomposition, the legumes restoring the soil, she explained.

“What happens underground, that’s where the action is,” she said, citing ancient Lake Agassiz’s role in contributing to the Red River Valley’s enviable soil.

“You can never reach the ideal, but the goal is to be self-sustaining,” she said of gardening.

Anne’s focus has now shifted to The Secret Garden on a full-time basis, due to consumer/retailer demand.

Through the years of dehydrating, canning and creating original recipes for family meals, mixes evolved - from veggies and herbs combined with wild rice and whole grains to pancakes and breads. “Breads need spreads” and jam was added to the repertoire.

Recipes have been unearthed from both ends of the spectrum – from an old church cookbook to the New York Times.

And an impressive, wide-ranging market – retail and wholesale - has emerged.

“Everything I make has to be wholesome,” she explains on her website. “My mission is to make delicious, nutritious value-conscious mixes that you’ll enjoy preparing, and your family (and friends) will enjoy eating.”