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Growing history: Czech and Slovak heritage garden features heirloom seeds

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A strain of lettuce grown by a Cedar Rapids family for a century. A pepper that can be traced to 1800s Slovakia. Tomatoes that immigrants brought with them from Czechoslovakia and reproduced in Iowa for decades.

Those plants — and the stories that go with them — are now growing in a heritage garden on the lawn of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids.

The garden, which was planted this spring, is a small circle plot near the museum’s Sleger Immigrant Home. The house illustrates life for Bohemian immigrants to Cedar Rapids at the turn of the century. A kitchen garden would have been an integral part of that life.

“We’re able to integrate the story of the immigrants with the garden. We were wanting to help people touring the immigrant home connect with that history,” museum director of programs Sara Jacobmeyer said. “People love learning about that kind of thing, and people love gardens.”

In the immigrant home’s kitchen, museum staff have hung basil and dill from the garden to dry and sometimes leave plates of garden vegetables for visitors to taste.

“People will talk about the taste and start talking about things they remember eating at their great-grandmother’s house,” Jacobmeyer said. “Food is a way for all people to connect. I think it’s a jumping off point for people to relate to our Czech and Slovak history.”

The garden is part of the White House’s “Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens” initiative, which encourages active exhibits and chances for children to learn about healthy food choices Museum staff have planned garden-related programming for kids throughout the growing season as part of the initiative, and the museum is hoping to expand related programing in coming years, with plans for things like sauerkraut making demonstrations and tastings. They’re also working with Trees Forever to select historically appropriate companion fruit trees to plant nearby.

Work started on the garden last year, including preparing the soil with compost and then planting a cover crop of buckwheat. Staff and interns also spent time researching historic Czech and Slovak immigrant food and recipes, and examining the food history of the Czech Village. This year, intern Marissa Hedlund has led the planting and maintenance of the garden.

Many of the seeds came from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, an organization that collects and preserves heirloom produce and flower varieties. Other seeds were selected to round out what would have been found in a typical Cedar Rapids Czech or Slovak immigrant kitchen garden — the garden has tomatoes, lettuce, kohlrabi, cabbages, radishes, carrots, potatoes, onions and herbs.

At Seed Savers, which has over 20,000 varieties of seeds in its collection, seed historian Sara Straate found varieties like “Giant Czechoslovakian” kohlrabi, “Czech tomato” and “Czech deer tongue” lettuce to send to the museum.

Such seeds can be windows into American history and beyond, she said. Many immigrants brought their seeds with them when they came to this continent and carefully passed the plants down through the generations.

“Taking vegetable varieties with them was not only a way to remind them of where they had come from but also a bit of an insurance policy that they would have something to plant and grow and eat,” she said. “Finding out how families used varieties, why they were important to them, how they fit into whatever cultural traditions they had, we feel those things are important. We think they capture a lot of America’s gardening traditions and gardening history.”

IF YOU GO

What: Second Saturdays in the Heritage Garden: Garden gnomes and fairies

The Czechoslovak tradition of telling fairy tales is centuries old. Keep this tradition by creating your own magical garden creatures with the Ceramics Center’s Mobile Clay Lab.

When: 2 to 3 p.m. Sept. 10

Cost: $12 to $15

What: Second Saturdays in the Heritage Garden: Beautiful Backyard Bird Feeders

Join the Indian Creek Nature Center to learn how to attract beautiful birds to your backyard through the winter. Kids will learn how to make a unique bird feeder using natural and recycled materials.

When: 2 to 3 p.m. Oct. 8

Cost: Free

Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

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