Seed ordering season has arrived. Hooray! To celebrate I’m going to be talking all about seeds for the rest of this week. To start things off I have a great guest post from my friend Bill Thorness. Bill has been growing organic vegetables in Seattle for decades and recently released a gem of a book, Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Vegetables for Maritime Gardens. This little book is really a treasure for gardeners in the Pacific Northwest because it lays out which heirloom varieties perform best in our climate. It’s packed with historical tidbits and illustrated with lovely drawings by Bill’s wife, Susie. Even if you don’t live in our corner of the earth, Bill’s book will introduce you to a long list of heirloom vegetables that are worth trying! ~ Willi
‘Lacinato’ (aka Dinosaur) kale
There are many wonderful members of the Brassica genus that have thrived in our gardens over the years, but this one is a true star. Perhaps I like it best because it stands like a little palm tree throughout the winter when the rest of the garden is resting under a thick blanket of mulch. Start seeds in mid-summer for an overwintered crop that will feed you regularly from December through May. Harvest by breaking off the blue-grey leaves closest to the ground, which enhances the palm tree effect. I love it best stir-fried with garlic and olive oil, but ‘Lacinato’ is also good chopped into a white bean stew or a squash soup. For an appetizer treat, chop it, toss with oil and spices, spread it on a cookie sheet, and bake at 350 degrees F, stirring frequently until crispy.
‘Black Coco’ bean
Dinner would be much poorer without beans. They provide a meaty vegetarian staple throughout the year, from fresh steamed green bean pods in summer to long-simmered plump bean seeds sustaining us in winter. A French heirloom, this medium-sized bush bean produces scads of pods that are great fresh, lightly steamed as snap beans, with a broad, round, pale green pod containing a half dozen large, swelling seeds. But if you take a summer vacation and come back to overgrown plants, you can just let them mature and dry them, and the result is a delectable black bean for Mexican refritos.
‘Spanish Roja’ garlic
Also known as ‘Greek’ or ‘Greek Blue’, this garlic was brought by immigrants to the Portland, Oregon area in the late 1800s and has long been a Northwest favorite. To me, it’s the perfect garlic. First, it is beautiful—the papery cover of its cloves are tinged with dark pink. Second, it is versatile. I use it in stir-fry dishes when I want to lightly cook my fresh garden produce. I learned something about its use last fall: I called in to The Splendid Table radio program and asked the wonderful host Lynne Rossetto Kasper how to trial different garlics, then used her advice to test five varieties. To my surprise, Spanish Roja did not come out well in the raw taste-test, so I stopped using it in salad dressings. However, it performed admirably in sautés, roasted in foil, and slipped under the skin of a roasting chicken. Here’s my report on the test. Garlic is normally planted in late fall and harvested in mid-summer, but can be planted in spring for a September harvest.
‘Rainbow’ Swiss chard
A row of this colorful leafy vegetable provides an incredible amount of food in cool seasons while painting the garden with color at an otherwise drab time of year. Also called Five-Colored Silver Beet, it is a member of the beet family (Beta vulgaris), but it produces prodigious leaves instead of a swelling root. The flat stems and branching ribs are brightly colored red, yellow, orange, white and pink, while the rich green leaves contain a load of healthy nutrients (especially vitamins A and C). We chop them into one-inch chunks—brightly colored stems included—and cook them lightly, steaming just until the colors brighten and shine. Eat them right after picking to get the succulent fresh chard taste. Plant a row of this in February and enjoy throughout the spring.
‘Jimmy Nardello’ Italian Sweet pepper
Some catalogs list this just as ‘Nardello’, but that’s missing the point. This wonderful large pepper curls into a knobby J shape as it grows, literally screaming Jimmy, first in green, then in red as it ripens. It crunches like a carrot, and has the tangy juiciness of a Fuji apple. The pepper’s sweet flavor is enhanced when fried, and it’s perfect grilled in long strips and then laid over a cheeseburger. Each two-foot tall plant produces a half-dozen 10-inch-long peppers. In our cool climate, I always protect it with a Wall O’Water portable greenhouse until mid-July.
Honorable mention: I love most vegetables, so choosing five is like playing favorites with my nieces and nephews—it’s impossible! So here’s another five…
‘Purple-Sprouting’ broccoli. I have four healthy plants in my garden right now, bursting with leaves and about to deliver slender sprouts along their stem that are delectable purple broccoli buds.
‘Scarlet Nantes’ carrot. This is the carrot that launched a thousand hybrids, but I love to go back to this heirloom because of its sweetness and tender core.
Mizuna. A Japanese leafy green with a slightly mustardy flavor, Mizuna provides a delicate addition to winter salads. A cool season star, it doesn’t do well if grown in summer.
‘Cinderella’ pumpkin. Also known by its very elegant French name ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’, this pumpkin’s deep orange hue looks great in the garden or on the porch, or makes a wonderful soup. It grows in a spread, squat style that reminds you of Cinderella’s coach.
‘Chadwick’s Cherry’ tomato. How could I have a top five without a tomato? Well, I was trying to make my list a bit surprising. But of all the tomatoes listed in Edible Heirlooms, Chadwick’s (named for a revered English garden educator) is one I really urge everyone to try. It’s a large cherry with a rich, meaty, earthy flavor.
For more about the book, visit www.edibleheirlooms.com. Search for heirloom veggie seeds at Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), Territorial Seed Company (www.territorialseed.com), and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com).
Bill will be signing books at the Flower & Garden Show at University Bookstore’s retail booth on Thursday, Feb. 4, 5-6 p.m., and on Saturday, Feb. 6, 11 a.m.-noon. He will also be at the Seattle Tilth booth on Saturday afternoon, 12:30-4:30 p.m. He will be giving a talk on growing heirlooms at the Yard, Garden & Patio Show in Portland on Friday, Feb. 12 at 3 p.m.