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Heirloom Vegetables for the Pacific Northwest


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

Edible Heirlooms


‘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 Search for heirloom veggie seeds at Seed Savers Exchange (, Territorial Seed Company (, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (

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.

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11 Responses to “Heirloom Vegetables for the Pacific Northwest”

  1. 1
    Justine Says:

    Hi Bill, Your description of heirlooms is making me even more excited about the garden this year, which I didn’t think was possible! I look forward to reading your book. Coincidentally, I just placed an online order at Peaceful Vally Farm and they were giving away some free seeds – low and behold – Chadwick Cherry tomato seeds were one of the options so I got them. I look forward to trying them, thanks for the suggestion!

  2. 2
    LadyJayPee Says:

    Thanks for the new list of veggies & their varieties to try. I’ve been trying to find seeds for satsuki midori cucumbers that you have mentioned before but can’t find any without buying a bundle of other seeds I don’t necessarily want. (Seattle Tilth didn’t sell its starts last year at the Edible Plant Sale.) Do you know where to get them? Thank you!

  3. 3
    LadyJayPee Says:

    …also the Berggarten sage in seeds or starts. Thanks, Willi! :)

  4. 4
    Willi Says:

    Justine–I’ll totally trade you some of my tomato seeds from Italy for one of those cherry tomatoes. I’m always on the hunt for a good cherry tomato.

    LadyJayPee–You can get Satsuki Madori seed from Seeds of Change:

    I always buy the Berggarten sage at the Tilth plant sale, but you can also order it from Mountain Valley Growers:

  5. 5
    Justine Says:

    hi willi, sounds like a deal to me. We’ll have to trade seeds sometime soon!

  6. 6
    Jennie Says:

    Hi Bill and Willi. Thanks for the wonderful recommendations–I can’t wait to try the peppers! I have a question about lacinato kale. I try every year to grow it in my p-patch plot, and every year it gets infested with aphids to the point that it’s inedible. Any suggestions for preventing pests?

  7. 7
    Terri Says:

    Thank you for the book heads up. A copy is on its way.

  8. 8
    Phil Holden Says:

    Willi, if you aren’t yet into seeds and just starting out with veggie gardening, do you have a recommendation on where to buy plant starts for these heirlooms?

  9. 9
    Willi Says:

    Phil–Sure! The Seattle Tilth Edible Plant sale is nothing short of fantastic. They have hundreds of varieties, many of them heirlooms (full disclosure: both Bill and I are former Tilth board members. The sale is the first weekend in May…just two weeks away! You can buy a $25 ticket to go to the pre-sale on Friday evening (or volunteer, because all volunteers get into the pre-sale). The sale itself is on Saturday and Sunday. It can be hectic, but you’ll get awesome plants!

  10. 10
    alzainah Says:

    Dinosaur Kale has done wonderfully in warmer weather here in Kuwait.
    Ive had it growing from September until now, with no signs of bolting soon.
    Incredibly hardy.

  11. 11
    Grow kale and make kale chips | The 20/30 Something Garden GuideThe 20/30 Something Garden Guide Says:

    [...] love lacinato kale, sometimes called dinosaur kale. It can be harvested young or at maturity. It is yummy and doesn’t have as many ridges to [...]

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