"You can eat these," says Kathy Beam, pinching off a minuscule "lemon gem" marigold and popping it in her mouth. This variety of marigold dates back to 1798 and is one of hundreds of heirloom annuals, perennials, vines and shrubs that Beam sells at her Seasons Past Farm and Gardens in Littlestown, Pa.
Heirloom plants, Beam explains, are varieties that originated 50 years ago or more. She rattles off the botanical names of heirloom varieties of morning glories, nasturtiums, zinnias, peonies, phlox, nicotiana, petunias, hosta, hydrangea, weigela, deutzia, spirea and chrysanthemums. "Their seeds bear plants identical to the parent," she says. "Unlike modern hybrids, whose seeds produce one of two different varieties from which they originated, heirlooms stay the same.
They are genetically true. You can pass saved seed from generation to generation and have in your garden the same plants your grandmother had."
Beam, 49, grew up gardening with her own grandmother on the family farm in Hampstead. "I grew heirloom vegetables there, peppers, tomatoes, squash. I still grow gomphrena, a small white flower that looks like a dried flower when it's growing."
After she and her husband, Tom, married and built their house in Hampstead, Beam started her own gardens. Over 25 years, she planted the entire one-acre property. "I gardened incessantly. There was not another inch of space," Beam says. "That's why we bought this farm."
At Seasons Past Farm, all of her interests have come together. She first studied art at the Maryland Institute College of Art, then majored in English at the University of Baltimore. After graduation, she was accepted both at the Johns Hopkins University writing seminars and the University of Baltimore Law School. Instead, she turned her talents to plants and garden design and to collecting and selling antiques. She completed the University of Maryland greenhouse production program and joined the American Rhododendron Society and the North American Rock Garden Society, both of which emphasize horticultural knowledge and have seed exchange programs.
Gradually, Beam went into business, designing and planting gardens for friends and new clients around Baltimore and southern Pennsylvania.
When she needed more room to raise and propagate unusual plants for herself and clients, she began looking for a farm. In 1998, she and her husband, who with her brother own Beam and Parkins Construction Co., bought 18 acres in the rolling green countryside 10 miles south of Gettysburg.
On it was a red barn in good condition, a white clapboard and stone house (which includes the original 1750 log cabin), several outbuildings, three ponds and a stream.
They began by clearing pecan and ash trees, the dense overgrowth of multiflora roses and poison ivy "that looked like trees," Beam recalls.
Now she uses the house as an office and has converted the sunroom into a display room. She sells antique garden furniture and ornaments, handmade pots from two local potters, birdfeeders and architectural elements like cupolas and stone gargoyles, as well as glazed ceramic balls and garden sculpture.
One by one, three greenhouses have filled quickly with Beam's collection of plants, which number between 3,000 and 4,000. Many are native varieties. Beam prefers natives, which she says grow more easily and are more disease-resistant than plants not native to this region.
About 150 different varieties of hosta, eagerly bought by collectors, fill one house. Another is dedicated to unusual varieties of native trees and shrubs, dwarf conifers, Japanese maples and perennials.
Throughout the property are display gardens, which Beam designs and her husband builds. Besides wanting to show customers how plants look in a garden, Beam says, "I want to get to know them myself to be sure they are garden-worthy plants."
A dry stream bed, which Tom lined with rocks, winds around one bed. A fieldstone bench, also built by Tom, is placed across from a granite Japanese lantern. Redbud and aspen trees, a salt-tolerant Parrotia tree, a striped-bark maple and plantings hostas, euphorbia, oakleaf hydrangeas and noninvasive bamboo create an uncluttered, serene garden, full of variety.
From the neighbor's barn, a rooster crows. Carolina wrens chitter. A man rides down the driveway on his bicycle to visit, even though today Seasons Past is closed so Beam can catch up on nursery maintenance and, with her staff, plant a garden she designed months ago.
"This year was a turning point," Beam says. "After four years, the nursery has surpassed the design business. I am beginning to cut back on my design work." A long waiting list of design customers, however, means that new customers wait three to four months.
Work at the nursery increases. In addition to the help of her husband and 18-year-old son Tommy, who mows and helps when sales are busy, Beam has hired three employees, all with extensive horticultural backgrounds.
So Beam is planning a fourth greenhouse for a new collection of heirloom vegetables, a return to her gardening roots.
She is also planning more display gardens and a nature sanctuary as a memorial to her 16-year-old daughter, Autumn. In 1998, months after she and Tom bought the farm, Autumn, a high school senior who wanted to be a molecular biologist, died after a 13-year battle with leukemia.
Beam says that many who come to the nursery bring a picnic and stay for hours. "What gives me a lot of satisfaction is that after 9/11, people came by the next day and said, 'I need to be somewhere peaceful.' Others say that is more like shopping in someone's garden than at a garden center," she says.
Muffin Evander, past president of the Horticultural Society of Maryland and a longtime customer says: "It's the charm that distinguishes Kathy's place, the ambience. You have a pre-Revolutionary house, the barn, gardens and ponds. What makes it unique is she sells such a variety of cutting-edge plants, ones popular in fine gardening magazines, things now like chartreuse and burgundy plants, or variegated plants; but she also has vast horticultural knowledge gained from years of growing plants from seeds and cuttings. Kathy knows just how to grow everything and what makes good companion plantings."
During the holidays Beam will sell unusual holiday greens - magnolias, holly, boxwood, cryptomeria and winterberry - and other horticulturally inspired gifts like books, gardening gloves, thermometers and birdfeeders.
And during the dark days of winter, when Seasons Past Farm closes for business, Beam plans to catch up on her design work and sow seeds for another spring, another generation of plants.
Seasons Past Farm & Gardens
Where: 825 White Hall Road
Littlestown, PA 17340
Located 10 miles south of Gettysburg. Call for directions or visit the Web site, www.seasonspastfarm.com.
Call: 717-359-0028; 410-239-3648
Hours: Open April through December, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Kathy Beam's Beam's suggestions for fall planting
Fall-blooming anemones (windflower). Many different kinds, singles and doubles, but Beam prefers the singles "because they don't get mushy when it rains." 'Honorine Jobert' is a favorite with single white flowers that bloom in September and October.
Asters. Many different varieties, 6 inches to 5 feet, but a favorite, because it is a little different, is 'Lady in Black' with a dark purple, lacy, foliage that is almost black. Flowers are tiny, like baby's breath, and pale lilac, almost white, with a pink center.
Chrysanthemums. Two of Beam's favorites are the bright pink 'Clara Curtis' and pinky-peach 'Sheffield.'
Tricyrtis (toad lily). 'Hirta Variegata' is a favorite because the variegated lime-green leaves, with a cream margin, look good even before the orchidlike pale purple flowers bloom in September.
Oakleaf hydrangea. A favorite for the fall, even though the white blooms are finished, because of its striking bronze-red foliage.
Calamagrostis brachytricha (feather reed grass) is a favorite because it is not invasive and will take more shade than some grasses. Fall-flowering pink plumes. Grass has good fall color.