How Does Your Garden Grow?September 30, 2017
Story by Bill Powell
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller
Allen Helderman gardens.
A lot of plots.
The 73-year-old retiree tends double-digit garden plots — big ones — on every usable hilltop across 65 acres where he and wife Linda (Angerer) reside just east of the Dubois Crossroads.
Allen sets out 100 or more tomato plants and a like number of pepper plants each year. The propagator also folds at least 4 pounds of sweet corn seed into the soil each year.
“I start planting sweet corn in early April and try to plant a little about every week into mid or late July, weather permitting,” he says. “We can usually have fresh corn continually for two months, if the raccoons and squirrels don’t eat too much.”
For anyone who’s ever contemplated taking gardening to the next level, he’s a good grower to get to know. He knows tricks like, when saving tomato seeds to start next year’s crop, deposit pulpy masses in a glass jar and leave them there long enough for them to start to ferment.
“After about three days, you put them into a little strainer, run water to strain them — wash them off — and put them out to dry,” he says. “That little bit of fermenting will get rid of the sticky stuff so the seeds are not all stuck together. That way you wind up with loose seeds.”
You won’t find Allen taking vegetables to a farmers market or carting any off to a county fair. Whatever he and Linda fail to consume, can or save for seed is not wasted. Some produce gets sold to friends and neighbors but a lot is given away to family, friends and visitors like the mailman.
The Heldermans’ spread of cropped hilltops is property Linda’s family came to in the 19th century. The ground there is not extraordinary but Allen can take a little plot of clay dirt and turn it into productive soil in short order.
His secret: turkey manure and bark mulch.
A neighbor supplies towering mounds of turkey manure, then Allen orders mulch by the tri-axle semi load from Randy Neukem Trucking, which usually gets loads from the Werner Sawmill. “It’s bark from where they de-bark the logs,” he says.
Allen usually gets bare patches of ground ready to become a garden by breaking up soil with a little John Deere tractor and a tiller attachment, then working in scoops of manure and mulch.
His plants seem to connect with what he’s doing. Allen’s ornamental Indian corn stalks tower 13 feet into the sky.
Once plants sprout, Allen tends gardens with a hand-me-down cultivating hoe passed on to him from Linda’s family. It looks like it spent its life being passed from pilgrim to pioneer after perhaps coming to America on some wooden ship.
Look closely and you can see where a blade-tip extension was riveted over the original’s worn surface many decades back. That old family hoe is of a different design and is much heavier than the standard garden hoe sold in department stores today. It is a thick, antique cultivating tool that uses the weight of its head to increase efficiency.
Allen says that hefty, old-style hoe really does the work. “Something like this,” he says, “you can get weeds out with it.”
It’s handle is twice as thick as a modern tool’s, and longer, too. When it was time to replace that handle, Allen searched and searched for another. He finally found one maybe 20 years ago inside the throwback L. H. Sturm Hardware building on The Square in Jasper. Sturm Hardware is on the National Register of Historic Places and, along with the exact handle he was looking for, the Jasper hardware store also carried a brand new cultivating hoe styled like his old one. Allen says the virtual twin he purchased that day was made in Austria.
“That’s a good, solid hoe,” he says. “I bought that on the spot.”
Those two heavy, pioneer-style hoes do all the work on the Helderman property while a half dozen lighter, modern ones gather cobwebs, unused.
If he needs more oomph, he breaks out a 42-year-old rear-tine tiller.
Ever notice how tomato plants start off producing platter-size fruits but, by late summer, any tomato growing larger than a golf ball — or ripening at all — becomes a success? Allen avoids that by staggering planting times.
From late July through August he plants green beans, turnips, radishes, beets, carrots, spinach and zucchini. “I also set out cabbage plants, broccoli, and cauliflower,” he says.
Those late plantings will hopefully produce yet this fall.
“Turnips and cabbage can take frost and even a light freeze so they usually last longer,” Allen says. “Last year, I took out the last cabbage and cauliflower on Dec. 14.”
He had one large head of cabbage in the refrigerator that he used to make slaw into late April.
“Carrots can stay in the ground, just pull some mulch up to the top of the plant and you can often pull fresh carrots all winter,” he says. “Last year, or maybe it was the year before, I pulled carrots up till late February or early March.”
By then, it’s almost time to plant anew.
With so many plants, plots and varieties involved, each growing season is usually pretty successful for Allen. A notable exception was 2012, a year of heat and widespread drought on the heels of a mostly absent winter. The average annual U.S. temperature that year (55.32 degrees) broke the previous record set in 1998 by a full degree — when such records are usually broken by a tenth of a degree, at best.
“The real early stuff did OK (in 2012),” Allen says. “That year I had to water to get anything to come up at all.”
Allen grew up near Monroe City, the son of a Knox County farmer who also taught school. Allen became an educator himself, teaching science and math at Dubois for 13 years before moving into a career in the environmental wing at Jasper Engines & Transmissions for 291⁄2 years, until his retirement.
While a teacher, he met Linda, who was a school secretary at Dubois up until the time she and Allen began a family. She has babysat for neighbors since.
They built a house on Linda’s family’s land in 1970 and, since both had grown up in gardening families, the Heldermans decided to carry on the tradition. For 47 years they and their 5-gallon buckets of produce have been side by side, with Allen and Linda treating tasks like shucking sweet corn as together time.
Allen and Linda make relishes and sauerkraut, can green beans and make tomato juice. Ball jars filled with garden produce line cellar shelves. Chest freezers contain bags of frozen, minced veggies, along with next year’s seeds.
If Walmart would shut down for a couple of weeks, Allen says, it wouldn’t bother him at all.
“Not many people garden anymore, especially younger people,” Allen said. “If Walmart closed I think people would starve. Actually they’d probably go to McDonalds.”
In addition to corn, green beans and tomatoes, the Heldermans grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, okra, spinach, lettuce, radishes and turnips. There’s zucchini, eggplant, peppers, blackberries, rhubarb and asparagus, too.
Allen isn’t afraid to try his hand at peanuts, banana trees, lima beans, peas, black Spanish radishes, black-eyed peas, watermelons or cantaloupes, either.
He gives new varieties a go each growing season and enjoys presenting guests with variety platters of red, yellow and orange sliced tomatoes.
“Everybody can take what they want, then,” he says.
When things slow down during the winter, Allen can turn his attention to digging up information on genealogy — his other passion.
“I can go work on genealogy for days at a time,” he says.
Mention a distant link to his or his wife’s family lines and — wham! — there’s 83 pages of genealogical reports and pedigree charts in your email inbox the next day with more information on your kin than you ever knew existed. Common ancestors are noted. And there’s a name index at the end. He will tell you if you are a half-second cousin once removed and tell you exactly why.
While Allen stays immersed in genealogy and horticulture, Linda cooks — as in she does all the cooking, from grilling to baking.
“If I had to cook,” Allen says, “I believe I would be in bad shape.”
What’s next for him? Maybe, next year, pruning back his cultivating.
“I can’t get down on the ground to pick stuff like I used to,” he confides. “I get around OK yet but, when you pick green beans, you’re down on the ground on your knees.
“I’m going to cut back on a flower bed or two, I think.”
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