Missouri horticulturist's reputation grows alongside thousands of diverse edible plants

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 | 12:38 p.m. CDT

KINGSVILLE — The little white puff ball sneaks up on Matt Bunch.

"That might be a first for me," he says, holding up what looks like your average drug store cotton ball on steroids, cotton-ball growth hormone and a high-protein diet.

It's a number of firsts blooming for the Lawrence native, the head horticulturist for Heartland Harvest Garden, a 12-acre edible landscape at the Powell Gardens just outside of Kansas City in Kingsville.

A first much bigger than his cotton ball? A stint on the cover of The American Gardener, the magazine of the American Horticultural Society.

Yep, Bunch is literally the cover boy for the American gardener — both literally and probably figuratively, too.

Literally because he landed smack on the cover of the September/October issue of the magazine, smiling under a wide-brimmed hat while tending to a plant under a hot summer sun.

Figuratively because the garden that he tends could be a metaphorical ground zero for the recent vegetable garden movement — started alongside the push for locally produced food and capped this spring with the planting of Michelle Obama's organic garden on the White House lawn. People these days are interested in where their food comes from, and for anyone living in these parts, Heartland Harvest is a 12-acre window shop of possibilities.

"It's an edible landscape, and so that means pretty much every plant has some sort of purpose in the food chain, at least in our food chain," Bunch says. "There's a pretty exhaustive list of what we're growing."

He's not kidding. That includes 600 varieties of vegetables to 80 types of apples, 50 kinds of grapes, 45 varieties of peaches and nectarines, and countless other fruits, including pears, plums, apricots, blueberries and even goji berries. Add nuts from pecans to peanuts and oil crops like cotton, and Heartland Harvest showcases nearly everything our climate reasonably has to offer us as far as food going from seed to table.

And shepherding thousands of visitors through the maze of possibilities since the garden opened its doors in June is Bunch, 36, who grew up in Lawrence, attended Kansas University and even worked for the city as a horticulturist before moving to Kansas City in 2004 and then to Powell Gardens about a year and a half ago.

The garden is laid out like a good meal — the kind with several courses that make for leisurely fun. Well, unless you're Bunch or any of his volunteers or full-time staff — then it's work and fun. Every day he's going through the garden, tending to plants that go well beyond the typical backyard vegetable offering of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash.

First is the "Menu" garden, where shiny black peppers and bright pineapple sage greet visitors with a sampling of what can be found the more voluminous area beyond.

Next, guests can wind their way down a Apple Celebration Court or take a walk down Pear Promenade to Peach Plaza. Grapes climb through the vineyard, while pomegranate trees wait to go into the green house for the winter. There are also two gardens planned by gardening authors — each meant to demonstrate ways to create an edible landscape at home.

Next comes the main event — a huge square of garden broken into four sections: The Missouri Star Orchard Garden, Old Missouri, Kansas Star and the Villandry. The Missouri and Kansas gardens are meant to display the state's traditional and current crops on a microscale. The Villandry is Heartland Harvest's take on a supremely famous French garden of the same name. There, intricate patterns are carved through the soil with herbs creating a patchwork of different colors, showing design as much as function.

Next to the Villandry is the Kitchen Garden, serving as a pantry of sorts for the restaurant next door, Fresh: A Garden Cafe. The cafe uses produce from the whole garden, getting a daily scouting report from Bunch on what's ready for harvest and therefore ready to land on the ever-changing menu. Of course, for those not there for lunch, there are tasting stations out in the garden, allowing guests to sample some of the garden's bounty anytime.

There's also an educational component, with an area designed for classes for adults and kids, as well as a patch of berries which is designed to grow high enough to eventually live up to its name: the Tutti-Frutti maze.

Of the stranger, or at least unexpected, of the 2,000 items in the garden are rice paddies, Royal Medlar and peanuts (next-door neighbors to the cotton). The one thing Bunch hasn't been able to grow that he wishes were possible? Wasabi. In northwestern Missouri, there's just no way to properly replicate the cool, mountain stream conditions the Japanese root prefers.

Bunch got started in the garden young — working with his parents Steve and Joy at his childhood home in east Lawrence, Kan. There, he helped with an organic vegetable garden that his mother tended.

"If you look at our garden today, you wouldn't know our son was a horticulturist," Steve Bunch says, joking about his very shady yard. "But back when he was a toddler, we had a vegetable garden in the back yard. He would help sometimes, especially when he was younger and it was not work."

While getting his history degree at KU, Bunch made gardening his work, taking up horticulture as an employee at the former Pence Garden Center, now Sunrise Garden Center. He says that between his time spent in the backyard with his parents and his time spent at the garden center, he feels lucky to have knowledge that is lost on some of his peers.

"There is a disconnect ... it seems like there are lots of younger kids that they do seem to know about some of these things. I'm finding there's maybe a greater disconnect with folks my age and a little bit younger," he says. "And maybe that's just where I'm getting the questions from — is from a lot of the visitors who are completely befuddled by where certain things come from. And they've probably just never grew up with any sort of agrarian or gardening history."

That's not to say he himself hasn't learned something — in both the planning and harvest of the garden, his taste buds have gotten an extreme workout from trying to become familiar with 2,000 ingredient options.

"I've been into cooking," he says, copping to a love of fennel on grilled pizza. "It's expanded my palate."

Even Bunch won't eat everything in the garden, of course. Among his least favorite? Cardone, a Mediterranean relative of the artichoke. And some soybeans in the Old Missouri garden.

"I think I have some takers," he says laughing while eyeing soybean pods browned by the sun. "Some folks that raise goats may want these."

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