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Heirlooms

The flowers and vegetables that your grandparents grew! Heirloom seed has been passed from generation to generation, some for hundreds of years, and are untouched by chemical or genetic modification. Perfect for seed saving – they breed true – they yield classic, best-loved flowers and tastiest vegetables of the sort you won’t find in the supermarket. Many are condition-specific, disease resistant, and gourmet favorites. Start a family tradition.

Hybrid Seeds Past & Present

Seed PacketsAs your friendly, memory-challenged Planet Natural Blogger goes through the newly arrived seed catalogs, he marvels at the latest crop (heh) of F1 hybrid seeds to hit garden store racks. Then we start to wonder: what happened to that supposedly high-yielding, easy-to-grow, delicious hybrid tomato or lettuce or squash that was such a sensation back in whatever year it was?

In the catalogs this year, we find a new hybrid tomato with the word “super” in its name, a sweet corn designed to grow in pots, and a spaghetti squash glorified with the name of an ancient Roman city. Will any of them still be around in 10 years? Some, like Burpee’s Early Girl Hybrid have survived the test of time. Others, like the Moreton tomato, celebrated in the mid-Atlantic states for its “Jersey” taste, disappeared when the Harris Seed Company which owned its patent stopped producing it. Luckily, Rutgers University has helped bring it back.

And that’s the problem — at least one of the problems — with hybrids. Like GMO crops, they are owned by the business that holds their patent. No one else can offer the seed unless they buy the patent or it expires. It’s a great way to corner the market. No wonder new hybrids are advertised with such superlatives. (more…)

Saving Seed from the Garden

Saving SeedGardeners have been saving seed ever since we settled into one place and started growing our own food. Thanks to seed saving, and passing them down from one generation to the next, we have the heirloom seeds and plant varieties that are so prized today. It’s only since the end of World War II that growers have had the option of buying affordable, high quality commercial seeds; before that saving your own seeds or trading with neighbors was the only way to procure prospective plants.

Saving garden seeds at the end of each growing season can be a great cost saving measure and a way to duplicate last year’s delectable harvest. It’s also a good way to preserve plants that grow best in your own backyard. By carefully selecting individual plants that flourish in your garden and saving their seed, you can create strains that are well-adapted to local growing conditions. (more…)

The Charm (and Flavors) of Heirloom Vegetables

Heirloom VegetablesPractical and Aesthetic Reasons for Growing America’s Heritage Vegetables

By Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

When it comes to heirloom vegetables, what’s in a name? Plenty when it’s the historic Caseknife Pole Bean, a hardy runner that was the most common bean grown in Civil War-era gardens. Its pods, as you can guess, resemble a knife sheath. Or take the Sutton’s Harbinger Pea, introduced in England by the Sutton Seed Company in 1898 and winner of a Royal Horticultural Merit Award in 1901. One of the earliest peas, then and now, Harbinger lives up to its name by giving the first harvests of the gardening season’s bounty. Then there’s the flavorful Dr. Wyche’s Yellow Tomato, developed by an Oklahoma-based circus owner, Dr. John Wyche, who fertilized his garden with elephant and tiger manure.

The most famous story connected to an heirloom vegetable’s name has to be that of the Mortgage Lifter Tomato. The Mortgage Lifter was developed during the Great Depression by a guy named “Radiator Charlie.” When his West Virginia radiator business suffered because of the economic calamity, Charlie took to his garden and in a few years, through careful cross-pollination, had developed a huge, meaty tomato that bred true. He sold starts of these tomatoes for $1.00. In a few years, he sold enough tomato plants to pay off his largest debt: a $6,000 mortgage. (more…)

Cooking With Heirlooms

Baker Creek HeirloomsAsked why he loves gardening, your friendly Planet Natural Blogger always tried to come up with something profound, poetic, and meaningful. That’s all well and good, but the get-to-it truth is simple: he likes to eat. The act of gardening has its material and spiritual rewards but taking the harvest in to the kitchen and breaking out the knives, the cooking oils, and the cast iron is where it’s at. Planting that first seed in the spring (or before) is aimed at one future reward: forking up something delicious.

That’s why we’ve always enjoyed those “kitchen-garden” category cookbooks, the ones that relate growing your own food to preparing it for the table. Jere and Emilee Gettle’s The Baker Creek Vegan Cookbook: Traditional Ways to Cook, Preserve, and Eat the Harvest is focused on cooking with heirlooms that are snipped, picked, or dug up from your own garden.

The Gettle’s are the masterminds behind the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, a growing organization that champions heirloom gardening from a down-home, old-timey perspective. Their previous book, The Heirloom Life Gardener, was a compendium of heirloom vegetables and how to grow them. The new book delivers delicious-sounding ways to serve up the harvest (or what’s been foraged from the natural landscape) to your friends and family. (more…)

Saving Heirloom Flower Seeds

Saving SeedOne of the last — and most meaningful — end-of-season tasks is saving flower seeds. We’re not talking about those hybrid seeds you got from the catalog. We’re talking about open-pollinated heirlooms, flowers that have been around longer than grandma. Their names are familiar and come together like words in a poem: Calendula, Four O’Clocks, Morning Glories, Petunias and Poppies.

If you’re lucky, you’ve been saving seed since you were a child, going out with grandma and gathering pods, seed heads or the seeds themselves for careful drying and preserving. Back when, we would put the seeds in grandma’s old pill bottles. Today we put them in tightly-sealed baggies.

Every year, one or two varieties of heirloom flowers disappear from seed catalogs. At that point, if you haven’t saved seed from the flowers you grew the season before, you’re out of luck unless you can find someone who’s saved seed. Some families have made a tradition of gathering seed, going out in the fall and making sure they’ll have their favorite flower seeds available for spring planting. (more…)

Sugar Is Sweet; Let’s Make A Pumpkin Pie!

Heirloom PumpkinsWe finally had our first hard freeze here in Northern New Mexico, two weeks late of the average. Now, I’m sure most of you, including those in my beloved former-hometown of Bozeman, MT, are well beyond that point. Anyway it got me to thinking about how closely we’d be listening to weather forecasts in the fall, watching the patterns, and waiting until just the last moment to get in the winter squash and sugar pumpkins. Usually a light frost would first do some damage to the vines, warning enough that it was time to go out with a short, sharp knife and get them in. But sometimes a hard frost would just descend from the sky — like it did here last night — and, well, if caught napping it might mean the loss of one’s valuable crop.

And that got me thinking even further. We always grew pumpkins as a food crop. None of this giant pumpkin stuff for us. Why’s that? Well, truth-be-told, we love pumpkin pie. And that got us thinking even further. Lately, we’ve seen strange heirloom pumpkins offered around town and at Farmer Markets, like the blue Jarrahdale pumpkin from New Zealand, the oblong Rouge Vif d’Etempes and the pale Long Island Cheese pumpkin. But all our lives, we’ve grown only one kind of pumpkin, the ubiquitous small sugar. (more…)

Homegrown Tomato Time

Heirloom TomatoesThere’s something different in the air, something that precludes the end of summer and the coming of cooler days and chillier nights. Your area may have reached that point already, a time when frost is anticipated maybe even tomorrow. But for most of us, there’s still an abundance to be had in our gardens and that means homegrown tomatoes.

The history of tomatoes, their trip from the Andes and the gardens of the Aztecs to Europe and back to America is fascinating. In his entertaining book The Heirloom Life Gardener, Jere Gettle recounts the origins of the belief that tomatoes were poisonous (they’re members of the nightshade family, as are belladonna and henbane) and how they were first grown in the Old World as an ornamental. He recounts that famous moment in tomato history where a crowd of two-thousand gathered in Salem County, New Jersey to watch Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson commit suicide by eating a basket of tomatoes. They were disappointed. Today they’re consumed by the tons. (more…)

Just Beet It

Garden BeetsTrue confessions: I don’t like canned or pickled beets. There was a time that I did, living in the cloudy Pacific Northwest and growing lots of root vegetables because we could, including turnips and rutabagas. Garden beets grew especially well. I loved their tops or “greens” as they’re called and still do (beets are in the same family as chard). But every fall we’d pull beets, always leaving some in the ground under heavy mulch cover for greens in the spring, and the canning process would begin. The first month or so of eating canned beets multiple times a week, I did fine. But by the end of January? I didn’t want to see another dinner plate stained red.

There are a lot of reasons people don’t like beets. So who would have guessed the that beets are suddenly big? Foodies, fancy restaurants and home chefs are all finding tasty thing to do with beets. And a lot of the credit goes to heirlooms, specifically the Chioggia beet. The Chioggia, also referred to as the bulls-eye beet or the candy stripe are extra flavorful. An heirloom that originated in Italy, it’s different in more ways than color from the Detroit Golden heirloom beet (or simply “golden”… see number 3 pick on this post), the previous darling of the beet set. (more…)

Knee High In Garden Corn

Garden CornCorn is our country’s great vegetable. Since its seeds first migrated up from Mexico and spread across the world, corn has served as an all-American symbol as well as one of its favorite food crops.

Growing — and eating — garden corn is the source of countless family memories. Generations have grown up watching seeds the size of their finger tips turn into towering stalks with ears. How many of us actually laid between rows on a summer night to find out if it was true you could hear the corn grow? We still follow grandma’s directions: the first thing to do when picking corn is put the pot on to boil, so not a moment off the stalk is wasted. And we remember grandma cutting the kernels from the cob so grandpa — bless his dentures — could enjoy it even if he didn’t have his God-given teeth. How many times were we told that it was hot enough to pop corn right in the garden? Who can forget the unique sweetness of fresh-picked sweet corn? (more…)

Tomatoes: Taste? Or Color?

Garden TomatoesIt’s no secret that most commercially grown tomatoes taste lousy. Now scientists have discovered the reason: a gene mutation, the one bred into tomatoes to yield consistent color. It seems that tomato breeders discovered the gene about 70 years ago and began to cross-breed it into nearly all commercial tomatoes so that they would have an attractive red color. There was just one problem. Adding the redness gene “turned-off” flavor genes, the ones that created more sugars and carotenoids, various compounds in the tomato that contribute to flavor. The result? Tomatoes that look good but taste like paper. Here’s the abstract of the studies that determined the effects of the “redness” gene. Now we’d like to see the marketing studies that motivated commercial growers to think consumers prefer perfect red fruits without regard to taste. (more…)

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