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Partial to Home: Growing Aunt Zada's white eggplant

 

Thirty years ago when Michael and Sandra Keasler started growing a “few tomato” plants to pay the power bill in their greenhouse, they had no idea the enterprise would grow into a nursery with nine greenhouses. Sandra describes their plant farm in rural Pickens County, Alabama, as, “The hobby that has gotten out of hand.”

Thirty years ago when Michael and Sandra Keasler started growing a “few tomato” plants to pay the power bill in their greenhouse, they had no idea the enterprise would grow into a nursery with nine greenhouses. Sandra describes their plant farm in rural Pickens County, Alabama, as, “The hobby that has gotten out of hand.” Photo by: Birney Imes/Dispatch Staff

 

Birney Imes

 

 

In a world trending toward one-click-and-it's-on-the-way commerce, it's reaffirming to run up on someone who grows and sells watermelon plants from seeds found in a deceased uncle's freezer 20 years ago. Or white eggplant from seeds stashed in a baby food jar in the house of a grandmother named Zada. Or two varieties of cowhorn peppers (cayenne peppers resembling a cow's horn) obtained from a Miss Louise Freeman of Millport who got the seeds from her mother. 

 

And, it is further reaffirming to know the business is located on an obscure country road in backwoods Alabama near a community named after a church there, but doesn't show up on a map. And that it -- the business -- has had for years a devoted clientele. 

 

Welcome to S.A.M. Plant Farm, a family enterprise that began innocently enough 30 years ago when Sandra Keasler asked her husband, Michael, to build her a small greenhouse for ferns that had grown too large to overwinter in the dining room of their home in Antioch community. 

 

For years I'd been hearing about a near-mythic plant nursery somewhere north of Highway 82 between the state line and Reform, Alabama. Then, earlier this spring, I happened to ask Dispatch bookkeeper Debbie Foster, a dedicated gardener, where she gets her tomato plants. 

 

Debbie went on to describe an outing she took with her sister last year to a nursery in the wilds of Alabama. She wasn't sure what route they took to get there, but said the place had a great selection and prices to match. 

 

It's not the easiest place to find. Driving north on County Road 45 in Pickens County Alabama, east of McShan Lake, one comes to a weathered homemade sign with "SAM" painted in yellow. On the other side of the gravel drive, a faded turquoise sign with movable letters provides confirmation: "S.A.M. Plant Farm." SAM, by the way, is Sandra, Ashley (the Keaslers' daughter) and Michael. 

 

After Michael built Sandra the greenhouse -- she calls it a hobby house -- one of his co-workers at the Weyerhaeuser plant in Millport encouraged him to raise a few tomato plants to offset the heating bill in the greenhouse. 

 

That got the genie out of the bottle, so to speak. Word spread; in time Michael built more greenhouses -- he's built nine, all told. 

 

"After the first two or three years, we realized this was the thing to do," said Sandra. 

 

Soon the nursery became their life. "We have camped in the greenhouse because that's all we had to do," said Sandra. "We'd take the black-and-white TV into the sprout house. It's weird out here, but it's fun."  

 

This will their 29th growing season. 

 

SAM's has become something of a community institution. "People bring us their seed and say, 'can you keep this going for us?'" said Sandra. "Lots of people say they've never bought plants anywhere else." 

 

And, as you might expect, the Keaslers have plants you won't find anywhere else -- Aunt Zada's white eggplant, Hickman and Spruill watermelons. Michael estimates they have about 30 varieties of tomatoes and an equal number of peppers. 

 

About 25 years ago the Keaslers bought a fern from George and Janie Rose of Caledonia. The plant resembled a True Boston Fern, a popular item in commercial nurseries, but is, according to Sandra, "a whole lot tougher." Over the years, they have sold countless offspring of the fern they got from the Caledonia couple; they call it "The Kind." 

 

As the reader might surmise by now, SAM's -- open only from mid-March to mid-June -- bears little resemblance to a retail nursery. The gardener/customer walks rutted paths littered with gardening equipment, hanging baskets and children's toys. The place has a makeshift, disheveled quality. The effect is, well, charming. 

 

"If we had cleaned off and made this all on one level, it wouldn't have been near as much fun," Sandra said. 

 

Thursday, at the end of a long hot afternoon, Michael and Sandra sat in a shady corner of the nursery and talked about their three decades in the nursery business. Nearby their 4-year-old granddaughter, Madeline Grace, squatted in the dirt studying a small colony of ants while her mother looked on. Ashley teaches second grade in Reform. The nursery serves as Madeline's day care. 

 

Fourteen knee surgeries notwithstanding, Sandra, 61, is full of spunk. Michael, 67, bearded, face browned by hours of sun, is more taciturn. "I'm not going to say it's paid the bills," he said. "We've made a lot of people happy," Sandra said 

 

As I sat listening to Sandra and Michael talk about their three decades of working long hours side-by-side in the heat growing things, they seemed to be, just as I was, in that moment of repose, struck by the ineffable sweetness of what they have done together. 

 

Email Birney Imes at [email protected] 

 

 

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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