Cockscomb, strawflowers, bird peppers -- lots of unexpected plants on tap at the Dakota County Fair.
Garden volunteers Arlyn Lamb, left, and Jeff Adelmann spent some time in the new heritage garden with Dakota City Vice President Mary Hendricks. The garden was inspired by a visit to Monticello, Va., and offers visitors a display of a variety of heirloom plants.
When Arlyn Lamb of Farm-ington visited Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, in Virginia, its elaborate flowerbeds and vegetable garden inspired him. After returning home, he started ordering heirloom seeds from the Monticello catalog.
Tiny red fish peppers. Ribbed purple calabash tomatoes. Anne Arundel melons. Cow's horn okra.
He and a few other volunteers used the seeds to establish the heritage garden in the historic Dakota City Heritage Village, on the Dakota County Fairgrounds. Visitors to the 2012 fair, which began this weekend and runs through next Sunday, can walk through the garden and glimpse varieties of heirloom plants from various eras.
"Thomas Jefferson had a history of bringing things in from all over the world," said Jeff Adelmann, who teamed up with Lamb and started seedlings for the garden in his greenhouse. Adelmann, aka "the Herb Man," grows thousands of varieties of herbs and vegetables on his Farmington farm.
As Adelmann and Lamb circled around, they plucked ground cherries and berry-like Texas bird peppers. They pushed aside leaves to show giant lumpy Blue Hubbard squash. Adelmann tapped on a large Moon and Stars watermelon, dotted with constellations of yellow spots, and proclaimed it ready for eating.
The two, along with Pete Adelmann, a cousin, plotted the heritage garden, with wide grassy paths for visitors. They put up signs with information about the various sections, such as the area that includes flowers such as snow on the mountain, the vibrant velvety cockscomb, Touch-Me-Not balsams, strawflowers and French striped marigolds.
In another section, Adelmann, who worked with an American Indian seed saver bank for a number of years, planted heirloom corn in the style of a so-called Three Sisters garden, a traditional method of planting corn in hills with beans, which use the cornstalks for support, and squash, with low vines to shade the soil and retain moisture.
Dakota City Vice President Mary Hendricks has been out "babysitting the plants" -- watering the seedlings and weeding.
The plan is to sell the produce at the "mock fair" on the grounds, or as volunteers call it, "A fair within the fair." They'll also harvest pumpkins for crafts for the harvest festival.
"This has been a fun project," said Lamb.
This year's fair, which generally draws 130,000 to 140,000 annually, marks the return of the Chautauqua, which hasn't been featured for a few years. The tent show features original songs and scripts that cover such topics as Grandma's Marathon, Spam, and the word "uff-da."
Other new fair attractions this year include X-treme bull riding and team demo derbies. "It's like a bunch of little kids fighting with cars," said Director of Operations Don Storlie, of the derbies. "They just smash into the cars and keep hitting until there's nothing left of these cars. It gets kind of crazy."
Woods, Wolves, and Wildlife, an outdoor education center that focuses on North American wildlife, returns this year. Animals include a set of cougar kittens, Storlie said.
Musical entertainment includes groups such as the Whitesidewalls, the Johnny Holm Band, Hitchville, and Lost Highway.
And of course, the food: gourmet cupcakes, New Zealand meat pies, wild rice sausage, barbequed pork sandwiches, and items either deep-fried (cheese curds, peanut butter sandwiches, green beans, portabella mushrooms) or on a stick (pickles, meatballs, pork chops, cookie dough).
"It's all good food," said Storlie. "Probably the doctor wouldn't tell you it's good, but it's sure good to eat."