Friday, March 16, 2012 By: Uwharrie Heirlooms

A garden grows in Biscoe: Hugh Martin preserves farming heritage

As published in the April 2012 edition of Thrive Magazine, a publication o the Courier-Tribune

By JD Walker

Hugh Martin has always been attracted to antiques. As a boy, he spent hours scouring the woods for evidence of old homesites where he could dig for old bottles. It should come as no surprise this led him to focus on antique, heirloom plants at his nursery, Uwharrie Heirlooms.

Martin says his “Memaw,” Ruth Johnson Martin, inoculated him with a love of gardening, way back in 1967. He remembers putting in the garden that summer with just a mattock and hoe.

He started his adult life initially following a career as a delivery person for Coca-Cola. Then he moved on to become a landscape maintenance worker and certified plant professional with his own business and later, at the N.C. Zoo for eight years.

“But something kept tugging on me,” he says. “I wanted to get back to my own business.”

That business was as a greenhouse operator in Uwharrie Heirlooms. That’s where Memaw Ruth’s influence really came through. Martin says she instilled in him the love of old plants and methods.

Martin calls Uwharrie Heirlooms a small urban farm. It is based in Biscoe. The focus is on natural growing techniques. Uwharrie Heirlooms does not use any type of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers on the plants or produce that come out of the Montgomery County soil. The majority of plants are propagated from seeds, some of which are saved from year to year and others that are purchased from reputable sellers of heirloom seeds.

Martin also scouts the countryside for old home places and houses where many heirloom plants have been growing for decades. If he can find someone to give him permission, he makes cuttings and divisions for further propagation back at the farm.

Martin says his love of heirloom plants has allowed him to tap into the local farm movement. He is trying to satisfy the “loca-vore” appetite. A loca-vore is someone who wants the freshest, seasonal food possible, grown in his or her immediate area and picked at the peak of perfection.

The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services launched an initiative last year called “Fork to Farm,” to support farmers and consumers in this trend. State officials say consumer interest in local, organic and sustainable foods has never been higher and it keeps going up despite the tight economy.

In a recent survey, officials said national sales of organic foods have almost reached the $25 billion mark. Local food sales in 2011 were expected to reach $7 billion. State officials estimate North Carolina is home to 3,712 farmers just like Martin who are selling directly to consumers, for a total value in direct sales of over $29 million.

Food that is grown outside the U.S. can be an unknown commodity. Consumers have no way of knowing about the growing conditions, the types of pesticides used or the handling methods. Martin says modern industrial farming techniques have bred the flavor and uniqueness from fruits and vegetables. Produce that has to move from one end of the country to the other (or from overseas) has to be tough to survive shipping. It is often picked while green and ripened artificially.

Nowhere is this more evident than in tomatoes. Martin says he prefers the old varieties like German Johnson, Brandywine and his favorite, Black Russian. He grows about 20 varieties, including one called Hughs. Hughs is an heirloom yellow tomato that originated from Madison County, Ind., in 1940s. It is a beefsteak (large type) tomato that matures a little later in the season with a sweet taste and good disease resistance.

“It’s my favorite yellow,” he says. “People see the name and think I bred it myself, but I didn’t.”

He also grows broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, collard greens, corn, cucumber, eggplant, gourds, lettuce, okra, peppers, spinach, squash, Swiss chard and watermelon, in both sets and produce for sell to consumers.

Uwharrie Heirlooms grows herbs as well. In this category, Martin has a soft spot for basil and varieties like Genovese, lime and lemon basil. He has chives, lavender, oregano, rosemary, dill, fennel, horehound, lemon balm, mint, nasturtium, tansy, parsley, tarragon and thyme, too.

Anyone who loves the kinds of flowers that once grew around old farm houses would love the selection at Uwharrie Heirlooms. Martin grows sets of the hardiest of flowers like cosmos, four o’clocks, Sweet Annies and hollyhocks. Memaw’s flower border would not have been complete without balsam, calendula, castor bean, coneflowers, foxglove, lunaria and stock. Many are fragrant and all are sure to bring back fond memories when grown in the modern garden.

Growers are nothing, if not optimistic. Martin enjoys what he does with Uwharrie Heirlooms, but he’s already looking at “Phase II.” That will be Oak Bluff Farm where Martin hopes to expand the volume of produce he can offer for sale to individual consumers and area restaurants.

He is working with a partner to set up Oak Bluff Farm using sustainable techniques like planting cover crops of native grasses and legumes to build the quality of the soil. Martin knows it will take some time to really get growing, but he’s prepared for the long haul.

He’s also interested in developing a line of herbed vinegars and honeys. He continues to grow mushrooms and teaches other fungi-philes how to get started on their own. Then, there’s the dream of setting up larger, high tunnel greenhouses to extend the growing seasons at Uwharrie from three to four or maybe even five.

For gardeners like Martin, the sky is the limit and the next growing season is always just around the corner.

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Uwharrie Heirlooms is not open for plant and produce sales at the farm. Howeve, consumers can follow what’s happening at the farm at Martin carries his plants and produce to area farmers markets, including Asheboro Farmers Market, Montgomery County Farmers Market in Troy and at Star on special occasions.

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Hugh Martin is a huge advocate of natural farming techniques. He offers these quick tips for those who are of like mind:

• The best fertilizer is fish emulsion, a byproduct of the fishing industry that uses the remains of fish processed for fish oil and meal. It has a good nitrogen content as well as micronutrients for plants.

• The best insecticide is insecticidal soap. Martin recommends products like those made by Safer or just make your own using any of the many recipes found on the Internet that feature a natural bar soap.

• The best fungicide is a shovel. “People hate it when I tell them that, but the best thing to do if you have a fungal problem that is out of hand is to get rid of the plant,” he says. “Burn it, bury it or send it to the landfill.”


Garden Broad said...

Sounds a lot like my idea of a perfect job! I'm hoping to leave my medical career someday to grow herbs and gourmet mushrooms, nice to see someone living the dream :)

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