Growing your own vegetables has never looked, or tasted, so good.
Are heirloom vegetables more difficult to grow than conventional hybrids? The Beginner's Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables debunks this myth by highlighting the 100 heirloom vegetables that are the easiest to grow and the tastiest to eat.
Marie Iannotti makes it simple for beginning gardeners to jump on the heirloom trend by presenting an edited list based on years of gardening trial and error. Her plant criteria is threefold: The 100 plants must be amazing to eat, bring something unique to the table, and--most importantly--they have to be unfussy and easy to grow. Her list includes garden favorites like the meaty and mellow 'Lacinato' Kale, the underused and earthy 'Turkish Orange' Eggplant, and the unexpected sweetness of 'Apollo' Arugula.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Heirloom Vegetables and Why we Prize Them
Too Favorite Heirloom Vegetables
Marie's Top Picks
Artichokes and Jerusalem Artichokes
Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, and Kohlrabi
Carrots, Celeriac, and Fennel
Parsnips, Rutabagas, Salsify, and Turnips
Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
Rhubarb and Sorrel
Summer Squash and Zucchini
Tomatoes, Tomatillos, and Ground Cherries
Creating Your Own Heirlooms
Vegetable Seed-Saving Guide
First Chapter or Excerpt
Introduction: Why We Prize Heirloom Vegetables Growing wonderfully satisfying food is the main point of vegetable gardening, and the world of heirloom vegetables is so excessively abundant, it can leave you feeling giddy. A vegetable garden in full production reminds me of the dessert cart in a fine restaurant. Where to focus, what to choose? Must it be only one? Homegrown heirloom vegetables can be so beautiful and delicious that it seems you could simply inhale them, and many vegetables never make it all the way from the garden to the kitchen. Asparagus, peas, and tomatoes, to name a few, make quick and delicious snacks, with no cooking required. I have an obsessive compulsion for heirloom vegetables, and I blame my condition on my dad. After gardening all his life, he was becoming disillusioned with his efforts. He had the audacity to complain that our tomatoes were not as good as those in his memory. Although I started my gardening career as a child laborer in the backyard plot, I had developed a certain pride and competitiveness and was not about to be told my tomatoes were subpar. Then I read somewhere that perhaps we were not growing the right types of tomatoes. What I learned is that if you want the flavor of the tomatoes from your childhood, you should grow those same tomatoes. I am certain many heirloom converts were made this way. Start with a 'Brandywine' tomato and you never know where it will lead. For me, there is so much more to heirloom vegetables than childhood memories of sun-sweetened tomatoes. While writing this book, I experienced the daily joy of walking out to my garden and tasting delights from a parade of cultures. I like to think of it as the summer I grew the world and ate it. My garden included many more than the 100 vegetables featured here; I would sample each, ruminate a bit, close my eyes like I was sipping fine wine, and try to come up with descriptions that conveyed more than just, "Wow, that's good!" My hedonistic gluttony and being surrounded by the psychedelic array of colors and scents often made me forget the task at hand. The qualities and idiosyncrasies of these vegetables can be dense and sweet; rich and spicy; striped, speckled, and splotched; and so unendingly unique at every turn--a menu with limitless possibilities. As I chose vegetables to feature in these pages, I tried not to play favorites, but some heirlooms are simply brazen. When the sun shines through a 'Golden Sweet' sugar pea, there is no time to grab your wok; the temptation to pop one in your mouth is too strong to ignore. The sun's warmth is enough to release its nutty, honey crunch with no loss of luminescence. In a league of its own is the rat's tail radish ( Raphanus sativus 'Caudatus'). Try convincing your friends that they will enjoy eating a vegetable named for a rodent's tail. It had better be very good--very, very good. And it is. I watched my friend Marge (my backup gardener, who was persuaded to grow more vegetables in her own garden than her sanity cautioned) delight a group of master gardeners who tasted her rat's tail radishes. Everyone asked for seeds, which is the foundation of heirloom vegetable gardening: vegetables so irresistible that their seeds are handed from gardener to gardener. Not every vegetable I grew turned out to be a winner. My former fascination with 'Strawberry' popcorn, for example, must have been with the novelty of its tiny, colorful ears, not its flavor. The ears are only a couple of inches long, and although they are a lovely garnet red, they pop up white and taste unimpressively bland. All was not lost, however, because the ears made a great table centerpiece. I also had some disappointments. 'Moon and Stars' watermelon is visually captivating, but the melons take forever to mature, even with black plastic laid underneath them to warm the soil. Thank goodness for the heirloom 'Blacktail Mountain', with its shiny, bowling ball-sized fruits that obliged my shorter growing season with crunchy, juicy, sweetly aromatic slices that I could enjoy during the hot, hazy days of August. For sheer abundance, I am always delighted to grow beans. Every novice heirloom gardener should grow all kinds of beans. Freshly picked beans have a pungency that quickly dissipates on the grocer's shelf, and a glance at the heirloom options will leave you wondering how you ever settled for a mundane green bean. Beans do not require much more than sun and water. A few seeds will quickly turn into twining poles of snappy 'Lazy Housewife', densely rich 'Romano', or fanciful 'Chinese Red Noodle' beans. And we cannot forget shelling beans, such as 'Christmas Lima' and others such as 'Speckled Cranberry' and 'Tiger's Eye', which are so colorful and shiny you would think they were gems to be made into jewelry. What Is an Heirloom Vegetable? If your idea of an heirloom is your aunt Sally's cameo brooch, rather than a jar of her dried beans, remember that an heirloom can be anything of value that is passed down through generations, be it jewelry, baseball cards, your first grade report card, or a humble jar of beans. Those beans could be the last existing seeds of that variety, making them all the more valuable in general. At the least, the seeds tell us that someone thought that this particular variety of bean was so good, it was worthy of saving. Because of the evolving or haphazard nature of heirloom varieties, a strict definition of an heirloom vegetable does not really exist. Most sources, however, are in agreement that heirlooms must meet certain requirements. They must be open pollinated. The seeds produced by open pollination among plants of the same variety will grow into plants with the same characteristics as the parents. This is also referred to as "true to type." By contrast, most modern seeds are hybrids, crosses between plants that will not produce seed that grows true-to-type plants. They must be more than 50 years old. This is an arbitrary qualification, but it has worked fairly well and allows more and more time-tested varieties to fall into the category of heirloom. The heirloom palette is always expanding. An open-pollinated treat stumbled upon today can become an heirloom to future generations of gardeners. Some young heirlooms are allowed to sneak in because of their pedigree, being stabilized crosses of two bona fide heirloom plants. They must be storied or historic. Some purists think that only seeds handed down within families are true heirlooms, as opposed to those handed down through groups or communities. Many of the stories behind heirlooms may be folklore, as few people thought to document the history of their seeds, but the point is becoming moot as heirloom seed catalogs blur the distinction between true heirlooms and the others. With the plethora of seed sources available today, it can be difficult to imagine a time when gardeners could not simply order new seeds from a catalog every spring. But not so long ago, if you wanted a garden, you either saved your own seeds or traded seeds with other gardeners. When we save seeds, we tend to be selective, so the seeds handed down from generation to generation are often among the best vegetable varieties ever grown. More than heirlooms, these are prized champions. As such, it might be a disservice to label vegetables as merely heirlooms. They are not dusty, fragile, or exclusive, and they are not part of some trendy movement or quirky lifestyle. Although they certainly have earned their place in history, heirlooms are still vegetables intended for the table. Their true splendor comes from being too scrumptious to forget, so we continue to grow and eat them for generations. Contrast this with modern hybrids that were developed for commercial farming, varieties bred to ship without bruising, to ripen on trucks, and be uniform in size and shape. During the trip from your backyard garden to your kitchen, bruising will not be an issue, and you can harvest each unique vegetable at the peak of its ripeness. Growing and eating heirloom vegetables gives you a direct connection with gardeners and cooks from centuries past, not to mention gardeners from your own past. I still remember my father and his uncle debating the merits of 'Roma' and 'San Marzano' paste tomatoes over 'Big Beef' beefsteak tomatoes as we stood in uncle Vito's greenhouse at the start of the growing season. Why, I wondered, would anyone need that many tomato plants? But like so many gardeners who grew up without the convenience of tomatoes being available year-round, my Dad's uncle was taking no chances that his favorites might not be on the table to enjoy that summer. Of course, heirlooms are not perfect--they are plants, after all. Not all varieties are suited to all climates and growing conditions, but if you select the hardiest seed and continue to grow it year after year, it should eventually acclimate to your region. Heirlooms could not have lasted as viable garden plants if they were as temperamental as hybrid zealots would have you believe. To be fair to hybrids, many good varieties are available, and some offer improved disease resistance and vigor. But hybrids are one-size-fits-all, and they lack both the regionalism of heirlooms and their broad and distinct flavors. Every garden has room for a little of both. Heirloom vegetable plants can be compact and well-behaved, or they can be space hogs and ugly ducklings. For every sugary 'Minnesota Midget' melon that is just the right size to split between two people, there are sprawling plants such as the crunchy 'Mammoth Red Rock' cabbage and 'Giant Musselburgh' leeks that like some elbow room in the garden. And this brings us to the serious side of heirlooms: their genetic uniqueness. As we grow less and less variety, some heirlooms are disappearing from seed catalogs. Over the years, heirlooms have adapted to the climates of the regions where they are grown and have developed natural resistance to pests and diseases. Plant breeders and other researchers rely on the genetic diversity of these open-pollinated plants to develop new varieties. There would be no hybrids without heirlooms. Excerpted from The Beginner's Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables: The 100 Easiest-to-Grow, Tastiest Vegetables for Your Garden by Marie Iannotti All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.