Tag Archive for: History

Chioggia Beet

Ellen shares her research on the history of beets today. Did you know that beets weren’t always the deep red we are familiar with, but that characteristic was selected for and bred into them in the 1700’s? Lighter red existed much earlier than that, but not in the blood-red shades we know today.

Make sure to visit our Beet department and grow your own tasty varieties! Don’t forget to try both recipes at the end of today’s article.

Beet (Beta vulgaris)

The beet as we know it today is a handsome vegetable. It is rooted in the ground, transferring the earthy taste of good soil through its deep red root. The beet is an old vegetable, ascribed with aphrodesiac and blood strengthening qualities. Its wild ancestor, the sea beet (Beta vulgaris sp. Maratima) is not a sweet vegetable—it is a bunched mass of greens with a slender white-yellow root that grows almost on the tide line of the ocean.

The beet as we know it today has a larger, fleshier, and darker colored root than the seabeet. The seabeet grows wild along the Mediterranean coast, down the coast of the Corsican sea. The sea beet has the heart-shaped leaves, deep glossy green color, and bunching tendencies of garden beets. Today, we almost equivocally think of beetroot, as it is commonly called in Britian, New Zealand, and Australia, as blood-red. In fact, red pigmentation was selected and bred into the beet in the mid 18th century. While white colored beets are not common in the public marketplace, they are the leading beet grown for sugar production.

Another common cultivar of beta vulgaris is Swiss chard, whose name comes from a bastardization of the Sicula—the leafy green that Swiss chard is most likely descended from. Swiss chard is grown for its large leaves, which offer a near year-round source of leafy greens—with white, red, or rainbow colored ribs. Beet greens taste remarkably similar to chard and in fact the beet is the same as Swiss chard, but it has been bred to produce large edible roots, rather than put that energy into leaf production.

Anyone who has tasted a fresh beet can attest to its earthy, mineral taste. For those who find red beets to be too intense, the yellow or lighter fleshed cultivars offer a good substitute. More mellow tasting varieties include Golden Detroit and Chioggia beets. Chard’s buttery texture and almost ‘healthy’ taste is unbeatable, and I almost always feel better for eating it.

The sweetness of beets is well known. The vegetable has been associated in many cultures with love; it is said if a man and a woman eat from the same beet, they will fall in love. Aphrodisiac qualities were well-known in the beet in Ancient Greece and in Roman times. The red beet was hung on the walls of prostitution houses in 740 AD and again in the early 20th century. The beet is an old symbol of love and lust—and wealth. In Delphi, a beet was said to be worth its weight in silver, and was offered to Apollo to ensure wealth.

Today, the beet is well known and loved by gardeners and small growers. Its color and sweet taste are a welcome mix to the bitter greens and other green vegetables that are available in the spring months. Traditionally, there were three kinds of beets in cultivation. The sugar beet is used to produce sugar and was developed in Upper Silesia (now Poland) in the 1740’s. The majority of Europe’s sugar at the time was coming to the continent via the British colonies in the Caribbean. The sugar beet became better known when Napoleon Bonaparte announced an embargo with the British in 1813 and endorsed the growing and processing of sugar beets.

The process of extracting sugar from beets continues today in America and Europe, with Russia producing 1/6th of the world’s sugar beets. They are commercially grown all over the United States, concentrated in the Midwest and into Washington and Colorado States. Today, 20-30% of the world’s sugar comes from the sugar beet. As in Napoleons time, the United States sugar beet industry grew immensely after we enforced an embargo with Cuba, which was the major source of sugar for the United States.

The second type of beet is a forage beet, or manglewertzle, which simply means “root beet”. They are grown as livestock feed and are either left in the ground for sheep or other animals to uproot or grown, harvested, and fed out during the winter months. These varieties of beet have quickly lost popularity and are the most genetically threatened. One well-known Pennsylvania revival is Deacon Dan’s, which William Woys Weaver calls, “the field pumpkins of the beet world…some can weigh as much as 15 pounds but they need good, sandy soil to develop such large size.”

The most well known beets are those of the garden. They are typically red, although if you look closely, there are many shades of red, pink, even yellow to be found in garden beets today. They come in a variety of shapes, from perfectly spherical to flattened on the bottom half, to cylindrical. The garden beet is used for pickling, canning, eating fresh, roasted, and really, however you can think to enjoy them!

For some, the beet releases memories of vinegary pickles, or generic canned red vegetable, or the inevitable stained fingers one gets when preparing cooked beets. Beets food uses extend into food coloring, dyes, and even making tomato sauces more red. Nothing beats a fresh beet! Beets are served many ways, from shredded raw into a salad, roasted, or made into a soup. Borscht is a traditional soup from Ukraine—it is said there are as many recipes for borscht as there are villages throughout Eastern Europe. I enjoy this delightfully colored soup all year long, served chilled or hot. If borscht is not your thing, try the roasted beet salad with feta and cilantro.

Here’s what could come out of your garden for this recipe –  Beets, Onion, Carrots, Cabbage and Dill!

Traditional Borscht
Borscht is a traditional Eastern European soup that is served either hot or cold. There are many different variations, but this is a good starting point.
Servings: 4
  • 2 large or 3 medium beets thoroughly washed
  • 2 large or 3 medium potatoes sliced into bite-sized pieces
  • 4 Tbsp of cooking oil
  • 1 medium onion finely chopped
  • 2 carrots grated
  • 1/2 head of cabbage thinly chopped
  • 1 can kidney beans with their juice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 10 cups water and 6 cups broth to get 16 cups liquid total
  • 5 Tbsp ketchup
  • 4 Tbsp lemon juice
  1. Fill a large soup pot with 16 cups of water. Add 2 – 3 beets. Cover and boil for about 1 hour. Once you can smoothly pierce the beets with a butter knife, remove from the water and set aside to cool. Keep the water.
  2. Slice 3 potatoes, add into the same water and boil 15-20 minutes.
  3. Grate both carrots and dice one onion. Add 4 Tbsp of cooking oil to the skillet and sauté vegetables until they are soft (7-10 minutes). Stir in ketchup when they are almost done cooking.
  4. Add thinly shredded cabbage to the pot when potatoes are halfway done.
  5. Peel and slice the beets into match-sticks and add them back to the pot.
  6. Add 6 cups chicken broth, lemon juice, pepper, bay leaves and can of kidney beans (with their juice) to the pot.
  7. Add sautéed carrots and onion to the pot along with chopped dill.
  8. Cook another 5-10 minutes, until the cabbage is done.
Recipe Notes

Serve with a dollop of sour cream if serving hot. To serve chilled, simply make a day in advance and refrigerate. Take out about 15 minutes to a half hour before serving so the flavors will be noticeable.
Serves 4 as a meal, or 6 as an introductory course

 Here’s what could come out of your garden for this recipe – Beets and Cilantro!

Roasted Beet Salad
The richness of the roasted beets are offset and enhanced by the tang of the cheese and hint of apple cider vinegar.
Servings: 4
  • 1-2 lbs beets red and yellow make a beautiful salad, but one or the other will do
  • Feta or soft goat cheese
  • Olive oil
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro
  1. Rinse and top the beets (save the greens for eating later!)
  2. Leave beets whole, if you wish, or cut them into quarters.
  3. Roast at 350°F until tender enough for a knife to go through the center.
  4. The easiest way I have found to skin roasted beets is to wait a few minutes for them to cool, and then peel them with my hands, or a small paring knife, under cold running water.
  5. Cut whole beets into quarters, or slices, and add oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and feta/goat cheese to taste.
  6. Toss everything together with chopped cilantro.
Recipe Notes

Serves 4 as a side salad.


The Carrot's Odyssey

Ellen once again shows her agricultural research on the travels and history of carrots. We love these types of articles, packed with information and education, as they really show just how rich our culinary world is today, gives hints and history of where they originated or traveled on their journey to where we find these foods and ingredients today.

All too often, we forget how fortunate our modern world is to have this vast array of incredible foods at our side, without paying the price of cultivating an unknown vegetable variety that required much adaptation, selection and breeding to make it widely edible and tasty.

For example we don’t know, or have forgotten, that the tomato and chile – two of the world’s most treasured foods – originated in Central America before being spread throughout the rest of the world. Many other stories and histories of food – vegetables, herbs and flowers that they are prepared from – have traveled long distances and have adapted into new climates and cultures to become what we consider today to be ordinary.

Let’s celebrate the odyssey of the carrot, as told by Ellen! Make sure to visit our Carrot department and grow your own tasty varieties!

Carrot (Daucus carota)

The carrot belongs to the Umbellifereae family, a large family made up of 2,500 species of plants that put up a characteristic “umbel” seed stalk. Queen Anne’s lace is an easily identifiable member of this family with its white, lacy-looking seed heads. The flowers form an upside-down umbrella shape, hence “umbel”. Dill, chervil, parsnip, parsley and carrot are all edible, while some umbellifereae are poisonous. Most members have highly aromatic leaves and flowers.

The carrot has a come a long way from its wild state. An early depiction of a carrot would have been a small fleshy white to pink-purple root that is slightly branched with dense leaves. Wild carrots are found in Europe, present day Afghanistan, and have become naturalized in North America. Carrots from Europe were white, while those from Afghanistan were yellow and violet. The roots were first used as medicine, and then later as food.

In the 1100’s carrots were introduced to Spain from Syria. As carrots spread throughout Europe, the French bred a golden yellow carrot. The orange carrot that is ubiquitous today was found in Holland, presumably a cross between the yellow and violet carrots of the time. Orange carrots were bred with popularity as a patriotic tribute to the royal colors of the Dutch at the time when they were fighting for independence from Spain.

In the 1600’s, the carrot continued its migration onboard Mennonite pilgrim ships to America, where it was cultivated for years in Pennsylvania’s hills before it spread to other parts of colonial America. Today, California hosts the largest production of carrots in the country with 70,000 acres in production. The carrot is one of our most important commercial crops in the umbelliferae family.

What do we do with all these carrots? Nearly 70 percent of them are made into baby carrots while the rest are cut into coins for freezing, juiced, or sold fresh. The remaining biomass is fed to cattle.  

Carrots in the Garden

Growing carrots can be a frustrating experience in the garden for beginning gardeners due to slow germination rates and the need for regular, even watering. However, it seems there is a steep learning curve with carrots—once you’ve grown a successful crop, there is little more as pleasing as harvesting the roots from the garden and eating them on the spot.

There are many shapes of carrots to try, each adapted to certain soil types. There are short rounded carrots, long and slender ones, and the Oxheart carrot that grows to 6 inches long and up to a pound in weight! Danvers is a popular heirloom variety of carrot that originated in Connecticut and was traditionally inter-planted between onions, upon the belief that carrots increased yields and productivity of onion fields. The carrot is still used today to break up the soil, and many gardeners plant onions, leeks, or radishes after harvest in the improved soil. Danvers remains a favorite in New England for its cold hardiness and its ability to produce in heavy soils.

My first exploration into seed saving was with carrots. Unknowingly, I left a few carrots in the field and they came up again in the spring, the greens growing tall with a slightly thicker stalk. In the summer they began to send up a magnificent seed stalk that reminded me of Queen Anne’s lace I grew up seeing up and down the eastern seaboard.

The seed is harvested from the primary and secondary umbels. While there are other seed heads on the plant, these two are the largest seed heads and produce the highest quality seed. When the seed was formed and dry, I collected it into a paper bag—it wasn’t like the carrot seed I was used to planting though, it had little hairs all along the outer edge of the crescent-shaped seed. And it smelled amazing! It turns out commercial carrot seed is cleaned of all the little hairs, called “beards” for ease of packaging. Here is a couple pictures of the seed I saved, with beards, and commercially cleaned seed.

Raw and Cleaned Carrot SeedRaw and Cleaned Carrot Seed

Carrots are a wonderful food for fall gardens. They over-winter well under a bed of straw and their orange color is said to help in adapting the “fall” organs to seasonal changes. Indeed, many orange vegetables are found in the fall—from carrots to winter squash to sweet potatoes. In Vichey, France, carrots were prepared at every meal to aid in liver detoxification. The roots are also known to aid digestion, night blindness and to relieve constipation.


Are you hungry for something with carrots after reading that? Head on over to our Recipes with Carrots section for some delicious treats!

Bloomsdale Spinach

After Ellen’s article about “Alternative Spinach Greens” she now tells us more about the original spinach. Grown in the cooler season in a rich soil, spinach is delicious – juicy with a nice crunch to it; a mildly sweet flavor and no bitterness. Sort of like a bolder leaf lettuce.

There is little written about the history of spinach. It is a common sight in the grocery stores and at farmers markets. In most areas it is hard to find spinach year round at market, because its season is so short lived, just 6 weeks or so.

Spinach seed germinates best in soils that are 40- 70 degrees F and prefers cool days and nights. At 40 degrees F it may take spinach two-three weeks to germinate, but most seeds will sprout. Whereas waiting for warmer soil temps to plant spinach one will see a decrease in germination and faster emergence of seedlings.

Spinach does well from March through May and again September through November. Spring plantings should be planted 6 weeks before the last frost in moist, nitrogen-rich soils. Consistent watering will produce a long harvest and the best looking leaves. When temperatures get warmer, watering twice a day and the cooling effects of shade cloth will help prolong harvest. Spinach’s season is short and perhaps that played into its status as the first vegetable to be frozen for commercial use.

Fall plantings also do well and will regrow in the spring, providing a few extra and welcome harvests early in the spring when everything is just getting started.

There are two types of leaves on spinach. Smoothed leaf spinach produces an oblong, dark to light green leaf. Savoy-types have slightly crinkled leaves with thicker dark green leaves. Regardless of what kind of spinach you grow, spinach is a well-loved vegetable.

The vegetable was probably bred from Spinacia tetranda, a wild edible green found in Nepal. In 647 AD spinach was taken from Nepal to China where it was referred to as the “Persian green.” Spinach was introduced by the Moors of North Africa to Spain in the 11th century. By the Middle Ages, spinach was grown and sold throughout the rest of Europe, and in England was known as the “Spanish vegetable.” It was not until the 1400’s that spinach became a staple in Mediteranean cooking.

Catherine de Medici, Italian royalty of the 1500’s, preferred spinach over other greens. When she left her home in Florence to marry into the French royal family she brought cooks with her to prepare her favorite spinach dishes. Dishes that are served with a bed of spinach are known as “a la Florentine” in her honor.

Breeding work with spinach began in earnest in the early part of the 20th century when breeders started selecting and hybridizing spinach varieties with disease resistance and those that are slower to bolt. One of the best-known varieties came from that period: ‘Bloomsdale Long Standing,’ a slow-bolting, savoyed spinach that is popular today.

New Zealand Spinach

Spinach is either loved or hated, there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. This is probably the result of either being subjected to slimy canned spinach as a child, or having escaped those trials at the dining table.

The good news is that love of spinach can be learned, especially when that spinach is freshly grown from your own garden, picked only minutes before showing up in a salad, sandwich or other dish.

Several visitors to our garden have proclaimed that they don’t like spinach, all the while munching on a few fresh leaves of the hated green.We have learned not to announce what we are handing out to be tasted, letting them try and taste before discussing it. More than one has been very pleasantly surprised to hear that they actually do like spinach, when it is fresh.

What many don’t know is that spinach is a cool season crop, but for most of the country that means it can be grown twice a growing season, as an early spring green and then again as a fall and winter crop, planted at the end of the summer and enjoyed well into the colder seasons. Some gardeners will enjoy their fresh spinach past Thanksgiving and almost until Christmas, even in the northern states with a cold frame, row cover or hoop house.

The downside is that spinach becomes bitter rapidly when the temperatures are above about 80°F, but that is where the spinach alternatives arrive to rescue the summer salads. None of them are true spinach, but they are all heat loving, deliciously crunchy greens that can be enjoyed during hot weather.

Ellen contributes another article from her internship, giving us her take on these greens!

One of my favorite fall vegetables is spinach. The hearty, meaty leaves come as a welcome contrast to everything that is typically getting ready for winter at this time. Spinach that is planted in the fall will grow for a few weeks in the springtime, giving two harvests off of one planting!
    We are used to seeing lettuce and salad greens all year in the supermarket. The reality is that salad downright prefers to grow in cool weather. Much of the supermarket lettuce is grown in artificial conditions or in climates that are cool year round. When I was in New Mexico, I ran an acre kitchen garden for Real Food Nation, a farm-to-table style café. One of our main crops was lettuce, for salads. While it is possible to grow salad greens in the heat of July, it takes a little coaxing, and in the arid high altitude desert, a little too much water for my conscience. I prefer to grow lettuce in spring and again in fall, when it really wants to grow. The heads that come off these plantings are always stunning.

    How many of you have planted lettuce, or spinach, in the summer time, and noticed the leaves remain stunted, or wilt, or even start growing pointed leaves? When temperatures get warm enough, cool weather greens begin to exhibit physiological changes. They are getting ready to send up a seed stalk, bolt, and produce seed. It can be frustrating to tend to a planting only to miss out on eating any of it.

    But it is also a good reminder from Nature to plant – and eat – within season. Lots of people would like to grow lettuce all summer and to eat fresh spinach all year long. In some places this is possible, but in most climates this is not the case. However, just because we can’t grow lettuce in the summer doesn’t mean we have to stop eating salad in the summer! I’ve put together this list of heat-loving greens to try planting for summer greens. Each plant is adapted to growing in hot climates and are steady producing greens through the hot season.

    Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach, amaranth, and huauzontle, or Red Aztec spinach are all plants to try. Below is a brief introduction to each and planting directions and tips can be found elsewhere on the website.

 Red Aztec Spinach   Red Aztec Spinach (Huauzontle, or Chenepodium berlandieri): This ‘spinach’ was widely cultivated all over the Americas by Native Americans as a vegetable. In the Andes it has been cultivated for 5,000 years and is now known for the food seeds it produces, quinoa. Red Aztec is used as a green that is heat tolerant and drought-resistant. The lower leaves turn bright red as they mature and hold their color in cooking (only 30-60 seconds in boiling water). Seed-heads can be stir-fried and the seeds can be used for red tortillas or for sprouting. In New Mexico, the young green leaves of wild huauazontle are eaten widely in the summer, when the plants grow best.
    Malabar Spinach Malabar Spinach (Basella rubris): This vining plant from India does best in hot and humid climates and provides a summer supply of cooking and raw greens. There are two cultivars of Malabar spinach, one is red-vined and the other green with deep, shiny leaves. Parts of the red veined variety of Malabar spinach is used as ink and as a potent dye. The plants leaves have a slight mucilaginous texture, which is remediated by using a salad dressing with vinegar.

   AmaranthAmaranth (Amaranthus hybridus): One of my favorite greens to grow–and not always green! The oval, decorative looking leaves of this plant are anywhere from deep fushia to light green with white and pink centers. I always have people asking about these plants when they’re in the garden. These plants thrive in the heat, and may be grown for their seeds, which are used as a grain. Leaves are eaten steamed when young.

    New Zealand SpinachNew Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia Tetrogonoides): I first saw this plant in New Zealand, where it is called ice plant. It is a succulent herb with a pleasant watery texture and grows well through heat and frost alike. People rave about this plant in containers, as it has a sprawling habit and doesn’t need any fussing with to cascade over a wall, or the side of a pot. Makes a great ground cover between other plantings! While New Zealand spinach may be eaten raw, some prefer it as a cooked vegetable.
    In addition to these wonderful heat tolerant “spinach” plants, the heirloom spinach cultivars are not to be missed. I have grown Bloomsdale and Monstreux de Viroflay varieties. Both gave good quantities of slightly crinkled deep green leaves.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

 Ellen shares her research and experiences with rhubarb, that unusual but loved garden vegetable.

A deep red stalk is more popular among consumers, but often has poor growth and yield. Green varieties are often much more productive. People often assume red stemmed rhubarb is sweeter than other colors but color and sweetness are not necessarily related. The Victoria variety, which is probably the greenest variety, often produce some very sweet stems.

It is interesting to note that the Victoria variety, also known as Large Victoria is easily raised from seed, but the best flavor is often the second year or later. Pull the plant when the flavor starts to diminish and replant. It has juicy, medium sized greenish to red leaf stalks, is a heavy producer and is excellent for farmer’s markets or market gardeners.

Rhubarb (Rheum)

Rhubarb is one of my favorite food plants; its red-green stalks beckon summer on and strawberry-rhubarb pie is one of my favorites. During a trip to Chile, I was introduced to nalka, the Chilean wild rhubarb. The plants grew well along the coast and coastal rivers. We cooked the stalks with sugar the same way garden rhubarb is traditionally cooked. The stalks were so bitter and tough we had a hard time eating them. Rhubarb is a seed-bearing perennial that is thought to originate in Alaska. Rhubarb was first known as a medicinal plant 5,000 years ago. The Chinese prized dried rhubarb root for its astringent, laxative properties.

In the last two hundred years, rhubarb has been cultivated as a vegetable (some consider it to be a fruit because it pairs so well with fruits). Only the young stalks are eaten as the leaves of the plant contain high amounts of oxalic acid, an acid that is present in much lesser quantities in other vegetables such as spinach, sorrel, and beet greens. Oxalic acid has a somewhat sour taste.

There are two types of rhubarb that have been cultivated, the difference between the two groups are the color of the stalk and the size of the plants. “Victoria” varieties vary in color from green to light red with a green interior. Red rhubarbs, such as “Canada Red” are smaller plants, with less disease resistance. The stalks are a deep red inside and out.

Rhubarb is usually propagated by cuttings but can be grown from seed. Rhubarb plants grown from seed sometimes do not exhibit the same characteristics as the parent plants. Rhubarb comes quickly in the spring, when temperatures begin to warm up and is harvestable 6 weeks or so after the weather turns. Plants do not grow in hot weather, and will wilt through the summer. In cooler areas, or in beds with high moisture and well-fed soil, rhubarb can be harvested again in the fall.

Harvesting from plants less than three years old will cause the plant to grow less vigorously and to produce fewer stalks. Rhubarb can be harvested twice a year, if half of the plant biomass is left intact.

My favorite way to eat rhubarb is undoubtedly in strawberry rhubarb pie. There is something unreal about the combination of the sweet and sour tastes!


Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
Author: Ellen Brand
  • 1 pound 454 grams rhubarb, cut into 1/2 inch (1.5 cm) pieces
  • 1 pound 454 grams fresh strawberries, cut into 1 1/2 inch (4 cm) pieces
  • 3 tablespoons 30 grams cornstarch
  • 3/4 cup 150 grams granulated white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons 28 grams unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Pre-chill pie crust in refrigerator.
  2. Cut and place strawberries and rhubarb in a large bowl.
  3. Mix cornstarch and sugar together and turn in the fruit to the mixture.
  4. Remove the chilled pie crust from the fridge. Pour the fruit mixture into the prepared pie shell. Sprinkle the fruit with about 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and dot with 2 tablespoons of butter.
  5. Add lattice as top crust, bake at 400°F for 45 minutes, or until the crust is a golden brown color and the fruit juices begin to bubble.
  6. Transfer pie to wire rack to cool. When fully cool (several hours later) the juices will gel.
Recipe Notes

Pie should keep for up to three days at room temperature but I have never, ever seen one last that long!

Buche de Noel with bean inside

Ellen has been busy learning about what a family run seed company is like with packing seeds, pulling orders and helping us prepare for “seed season.” She has also been engaged in learning and writing about the varied history of several varieties of seeds and their uses.

Today we share her article about beans with a unique twist, in how a bean features prominently in a treasured family tradition and makes the day for a lucky person. Enjoy!


Beans (Phaselous vulgaris)

When I was young, Christmas season marked its appearance with a yule log, the traditional cake of the holiday season in France. I remember looking in awe at the “bûche de Noel” covered in chocolate frosting, shaped to look like it had bark, covered in chocolate shavings or powdered sugar and dotted with marzipan mushrooms.

My favorite part of this holiday tradition was the hunt for the bean that was baked somewhere in the length of the log. Whoever found the bean was the Queen or King for the day, and everyone had to do as they said. In some places, a tiny statue of Christ is tucked into the cake batter in place of a bean. I found the bean once, and as the youngest in the family, enjoyed being Queen of my two older brothers and my parents.

In France, the bûche de Noel is served on the Twelfth Night and is the edible representation of the single log (oak is common) that is traditionally burned from Christmas Eve till New Years Day. It is said that burning the yule log ensures a plentiful harvest in the upcoming season.

The symbolism of the bean takes us back to the time of our ancient ancestors. In Ancient Egypt, the dead were buried with beans to ensure their return from the afterlife. The bean field was the place where the souls of the dead awaited reincarnation. The legumes were an offering in wedding ceremonies, wishing the bride and groom a male child who could carry the line of the ancestors. Beans have been seen as a potent symbol of the embryo and of growth in many societies.

It is interesting to note that beans and peas are both members of the pea family (Fabacea). Each has its distinct growing habits—most notably that beans love the heat, whereas peas prefer colder weather. Beans take on two growth habits, that of the bush bean which grows just as you would imagine, and pole beans, those that have a climbing tendency, winding and trailing their way up stakes, porches, railings—whatever is around.

Wild beans exhibit bush, climbing, and sprawling habits and disperse their seed once pods are dry. The pod splits at the bottom and spirals outward as it opens, dispersing seed. I have yet to see this method of seed dispersal with agricultural dry beans so I suspect humans have bred this trait out of the bean for ease of harvest. It is much easier to pick beans in their pods than to search the ground for them!

Dry beans should be harvested once the pods have turned yellow and dried, and the seeds have matured from green to their mature coloration. If you have never grown dry beans, there are hundreds of beautifully colored beans to choose from, mottled purples and browns to white speckled beans each with their own shape. Beans have a distinctive life cycle, beginning with the sprouts that emerge from the ground with triumph, pushing soil aside almost defiantly. All green or “string” beans will mature to dry beans if left on the plant long enough. The process of deciding when it is time to harvest is an opportunity to watch seed mature and transform.

In the Americas, beans are traditionally cultivated with squash and corn, a trifecta of beneficial relationships known colloquially as a Three Sisters garden. The beans’ nitrogen-fixing capability provides nutrients to corn and squash plants, while squash leaves provide shade for plant roots, and corn stalks provide trellis for climbing beans. Some say that squash’s large prickly leaves make it difficult or uncomfortable for animals to raid corn plants.

Current gene bank counts of beans are as high as 40,000 varieties, although just a few handfuls of them are widely cultivated. Bush beans are preferred over pole beans today for mechanical harvest because of their clusters of straight pods that are low to the ground. This large number provides us the luxury of picking a bean that is suited to the climatic uniqueness of the area we cultivate. Growing regionally-adapted varieties, such as the tepary bean in our area around Prescott, Arizona, is a hands-on learning experience; a way to see how plants have adapted to thrive with climatic stresses. Here, our most notable stresses are intense sunlight and an average 10 inches of rainfall per year. There are many varieties that have become accustomed to this weather and thrive in it! Some varieties to try are the Anasazi bush bean, the tepary bean, and any of the cattle beans.

100 Year Aged Balsamic Vinegar

Italian Balsamic vinegar is pretty amazing, as even the “everyday” variety is highly tasty. Surprisingly, the traditional balsamic vinegar isn’t “true” vinegar in the classic sense of a fermented product that is removed from the fermentation after a specific period of time such as apple cider, wine or rice vinegar. Balsamic vinegar remains in the fermentation vessels for the entire time it is aging. It has been made in the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions since the Middle Ages, being mentioned as an established and highly regarded product in documents from 1046.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is produced by reducing pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes over low heat until the desired syrupy consistency is reached, called mosto cotto in Italian. This syrup, called a “must” is then aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of seven barrels of successively smaller sizes. The barrels or casks are made of different woods such as chestnut, acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash, and in the past, juniper. The results of this aging is a thick liquid that is a rich, glossy deep brown with complex flavors and aromas from the grapes and different woods that they’ve absorbed over time. The typical time for aging is 12, 18, 25, 50 and up to 100 years in those assorted wooden casks. No sampling is allowed until the aging is finished, and then a unique method of production is put into motion. A small amount of finished balsamic vinegar is drawn from the smallest and oldest cask, with each cask being topped off from the next largest and youngest cask. This happens once a year and is called “in perpetuum”. This is one of the reasons that certified traditionally produced balsamic vinegar can cost upwards of $150 – $400 for a 100ml bottle!

While we were at the Slow Food Terra Madre event in Turino, Italy last October, we were fortunate enough to be invited to sample several traditional balsamic vinegars produced in the Modena region, and certified as traditionally made. It seems that being tall, from Arizona and wearing my Australian Akubra hat gave us an open invitation with many of the food vendors that were eager to talk about the American West and share their culture!

Italian Balsamic Vinegars

This is what we were greeted with when he motioned us over to sample his treasures! There were some empty jam jars in front, followed by an apple and pear vinegar, made very similarly to how traditional balsamic vinegar is made, but not aged nearly as long – only 3 – 5 years. Very light, intensely fruity and delicious. We never knew that these kinds of vinegar existed.

12 Year Balsamic Vinegar

Next he started sampling the aged balsamic vinegars. The 12 year bottle was the first one, much like what we are used to seeing in the United States in consistency, but darker and much more aromatic as he poured the small sample out onto our spoons. Even at almost arms length, we could immediately smell the complex aromas of wood cask aged balsamic. Our mouths were watering before ever tasting the first sample!

18 Year Aged Balsamic Vinegar

This is what the presentation or shipping box looks like for the 18 year old balsamic. You’ll notice the price – 47 Euros, which translates to about $63.00 in late 2013. That sounds expensive until you look online at what DOP certified balsamic vinegar produced in Modena sells for in the US. We didn’t taste this one, as there wasn’t an open bottle.

12 Year Old Balsamic Vinegar

Next up was the 25 year old variety. Noticeably thicker in consistency, almost syrup-like. It moved slower out of the bottle and clung to the walls for longer. The aroma was much more complex and intense. The flavors really popped on the tongue with 4 or 5 flavors readily identified, then others showing up that surprised us. The flavors lasted for a long time, showing us how a tiny bit could be used for a powerful intrigue in dressings or sauces.

25 Year Aged Balsamic Vinegar

The presentation box for the 25 year balsamic, with pricing. 75 Euros is $100. It takes some dedication and patience to take a quarter of a century for a $100 bottle of vinegar!

50 Year Aged Balsamic Vinegar

We were then treated to a 50 year old balsamic vinegar. This was much thicker than the others, the gentleman had to shake the bottle a bit to get a few drops onto our spoons. It was different in that it didn’t have as much of an immediate aroma, but really lit off some fireworks of flavors in our mouths! As soon as it warmed up on our tongues, our sinuses were filled with multiple scents that continued to surprise us, coming from what was originally grape juice! The flavors didn’t just linger, they dominated our palates for a couple of minutes – to the point where we couldn’t smell anything other than this vinegar. After a couple of minutes lost in wonder at the craftsmanship and experience that created such a wonder, we took some swigs of water to prepare us for the Holy Grail of aged balsamic vinegars.

100 Year Aged Balsamic Vinegar

100 years of aging for this balsamic vinegar. He showed it to us, and I was very impressed that he would share such an expensive and precious delicacy with a complete stranger. I had read about these ancient balsamics, but had not expected to come across one or be invited to taste it. These highly aged balsamics are so valued that there are families that pass a bottle like this down from one generation to another.

All through this process, there were a number of people visiting his booth and a number of people were curious to see what we were sampling, but no one else joined us during the tasting. The proprietor explained in his limited English what we were tasting and the ages of the different samples. One of the impressive things that we experienced was the continuation of the flavors from the youngest to the oldest. There was a clear connection between all of them, with each successive taste getting stronger, more complex and more intriguing. It was like walking into a hall with a few doors, opening one to see hundreds more doors, then opening another to see thousands. That was what each taste was like!

100 Year Aged Balsamic Vinegar Presentation Box

The presentation box for the 100 year old balsamic is hand made of wood, with a satin lining to cushion the bottle. There was no price tag, but when we asked were told that it was “around 450 Euros” or $605 in 2013 dollars. It has been made this way since 1850 by the Malpighi family in Modena. They are truly connected with the land and the craft of making artisan balsamic vinegar.

It was an education and an honor to be invited to sample such flavors and aromas that take time and dedication to produce. It was another reminder of why food is truly important, why the quality matters and why care and dedication to craftsmanship remains a valuable part of our food pathways even in today’s ever-connected and busy world.



White Sonora Wheat Head


White Sonora Wheat is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today all across the country, thanks to restoration efforts in Arizona and South Carolina. Introduced in the early 1700s by Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino to the Sonoran region of Mexico and Southern Arizona, White Sonora Wheat was the staple wheat for the western United States for almost 200 years, from the early 1700s to the 1900s. Starting in the early 1800s, California planted Sonoran wheat almost exclusively.

Its popularity was partly due to its resistance to Fusarium fungus, drought tolerance and its exceptionally sweet flavor for baking. It was also prized as a brewing grain, again for its flavor it gave the beer. During the Civil War, much Sonoran wheat was exported from Arizona and California to the eastern states making up for lost production due to the war.

Young White Sonora Wheat

Several factors contributed to its demise as the staple variety of wheat, from expanded cattle ranching in Mexico, the droughts and loss of water as a power source in the 1950s, the closing of many flour mills in Sonora in the mid-1960s, the Green Revolution with its hybridized wheat varieties and the switch from wheat production to vegetables as dams closed off the rivers in northern Mexico. By about 1975, there were no more commercial sources of White Sonora Wheat available.

Modern Interest

A lot of attention is being paid to wheat today, mainly due to the rise of gluten intolerance or celiac disease in which a person cannot digest the gluten part of wheat in their diet. For a more in-depth look at this issue, read my article “What’s Wrong with Our Wheat?”.

This is one of several areas where White Sonora Wheat really shines, as it is lower in gluten and higher in protein than today’s super-hybridized dwarf varieties. White Sonora Wheat is an extremely flavorful semi-hard white spring wheat that can be used for whole wheat flour in breads, cakes, pancakes, tortillas, and more. By many accounts this is the best flour for cakes, breads and tortillas ever. Because it is a white wheat, not a hard red wheat, it makes lighter products that have a sweeter and lighter flavor than those typically associated with whole wheat. The berries can also be boiled and used like rice or sprouted for wheat grass.

White Sonora Wheat Husk


Another advantage the White Sonora Wheat has is a thinner, more paper-like husk, unlike other ancient cereal grains that require a mill to remove the husk and then can be ground. When we recently visited our grower, we were shown a large bag of the wheat that had just been harvested, with no other cleaning or sorting. You can see the video below, and see the weed seeds among the wheat, but also the very few seed heads that have any husks on them. The husks are removed by the mechanical action of the harvester, with the remaining ones rubbed off easily with a couple of fingers.

Processing and Cleaning

For the home gardener or small scale grower, this can be done fairly easily with some hand or kitchen tools. Depending on how much wheat you have to process, a kitchen food processor such as a Cuisinart fitted with the plastic dough blade can separate the husks from the grains. Pulse the blade to prevent from breaking too many of the grains and making it harder to separate the wheat from the husks or chaff. Fill the bowl up about 1/2 to 2/3 full and work in batches.

White Sonora Wheat in Cuisinart


Another method is to use a 5 gallon bucket with a paint mixer attachment on a hand power drill, either the spiral or traditional cross or paddle type. Use a moderate speed and move the mixer around the bucket to create the friction that loosens the husks. You will need to stop and check the progress, but will quickly get a feel for how long to use the mixer.

White Sonora Wheat has a root structure much like a perennial prairie grass with long taproots and a web of smaller feeder roots, unlike the simple and shallow hybrid roots of today’s wheat. These longer taproots bring water and nutrients from deeper in the soils, making the plant less susceptible to moisture fluctuations. It also helps to open up the soil when the wheat is harvested as the root system decays, leaving behind a network of air and water passages. The wheat can thrive on marginal soils and actually produces better flavor on these soils, though production volume is lower than modern ones.

With all of its advantages, flavor and nutrition, ease of growth and harvest, along with being adapted to dry climates and improving the soil, it is easy to see why White Sonora Wheat is regaining its rightful popularity! It is usually planted as winter wheat in areas with mild winters and as spring wheat everywhere else.

Customer Processing Method

One of our customers graciously sent some photos showing how he processed the wheat after harvesting it. He started with 3 oz. and the end results are pretty impressive! Thanks to Paul from California for sharing these with us!

Processing White Sonora Wheat

He starts with dumping the uncleaned wheat into a sack or heavy pillowcase – heads, chaff and remainder of stems – all of it.

Processing White Sonora Wheat

Then using a large, lightweight wooden mallet, he applies physical friction to the bag and wheat, loosening the hulls. This isn’t a pounding action, and he tries not to hit through to the bottom of the sack, only gently thumping the top and going down about halfway into the wheat.

Processing White Sonora Wheat

After a few minutes of friction, this is what the wheat berries look like – very much the same as what comes out of the combine, but with some stalks and stems in the mix.

Processing White Sonora Wheat

Next is winnowing the wheat, or separating it from the husks or chaff. The basics of this process haven’t changed since it was written about in the Bible – use a breeze to blow the lighter chaff off of the heavier wheat berries. Paul said he had to repeat this step a couple of times, but got a really clean batch of wheat.

Finished White Sonora Wheat

Here are the results! Pretty good harvest from a 3 oz. start. This is fairly typical return with wheat, it should be in the range of about 40:1, meaning if you plant 1 oz. your harvest should be around 40 oz. 

Blue Seed Opium Poppy

Poppy flowers are a beautiful addition to any garden with an amazing benefit – the seeds are edible!

The book “The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers from Seeds and Roots” by Suttons and Sons printed in 1910 had this to say about the poppy-

“The recent developments of this flower have brought it into great and deserved popularity, and it may be safely affirmed that no other subject in our gardens affords a more imposing display of brilliant colouring during the blooming period. All the varieties are eminently adapted for enlivening shrubbery borders and the sides of carriage-drives. Large clumps of some of the bolder colours should be sown in spots that are visible from a distance, and they will present glowing masses of flowers.”

What a beautiful description for a flower that has been cultivated for a long time. Here are a few gardening tips for the poppy:

  • When selecting the perfect spot, remember that they love bright sunlight for most of the day. If you live in a hot climate, pick a spot that will be at least partially shaded during the heat of the afternoon.
  • A well-drained spot is needed, as the poppy’s roots will rot in waterlogged soil, especially during the winter months.
  • Enjoy poppies where you plant them, they do not make good cut flowers.
  • Wood chip mulch around the base will help reduce weeds as well as help keep needed moisture at the roots.
  • Deadhead, or remove the individual flowers as the blooms fade and wilt. Removing the spent blooms encourages the plant to keep blooming throughout the summer.
  • When the flowers have died down for the season, cut back the foliage to the ground. This will produce a second showing of attractive summer leaves.

Many people associate poppy seeds with the familiar and wonderful array of Eastern European baked goods, from poppy seed pie or the poppy seed filling in the Purim holiday classic Hamantaschen. The Czech Republic is one of Europe’s largest producers of poppy seeds. When you harvest your seed pods from your garden you can make your own savory dishes featuring the poppy seeds.

Here is a perennial favorite that is easy to make and tastes so much better made at home, Poppy Seed Dressing!

Poppy Seed Dressing

  • 2 tbsp. Poppy seeds
  • 1/2 cup raw sugar
  • 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp. dry mustard powder
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely grated, juice reserved
  • 3/4 cup sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  1. Heat a 2-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add poppy seeds, and cook, swirling pan constantly, until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 3 minutes.
  2. Add sugar, vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper, and onion with juice, and cook, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves and mixture begins to simmer.
  3. Remove from heat and transfer to a blender.
  4. Add both oils, and blend until smooth; chill.

Makes about 2 cups

Simran Sethi on Seeds

Seeds – The Buried Beginnings of Food

“Seeds hold the potential for everything, the beginning and the end and the beginning all over again. Seeds are the building blocks of every meal we eat; all our fruits and vegetables, all our grains, plus the meat and milk that’s raised on grass and grain.”

Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist, strategist & educator who teaches & reports on sustainability, environmentalism & social media for social change. Simran is dedicated to a redefinition of environmentalism that uses innovative forms of engagement & includes voices from the prairie, urban core & global community. She recently gave an inspiring presentation at TEDx Manhattan on Seeds – The Buried Beginnings of Food where she shared how much seeds really do matter to all of us, no matter where we live or what we do as a profession.

After showing how few varieties of edible plants we cultivate for our food – about 150 out of more than 80,000 – she goes on to explain the vast majority of humankinds food comes from just about 30 species. In America, over half of our daily calories come from just 4 foods – rice, corn, wheat and potatoes! We are seeing the results of a gradual shrinking in the variety of our food supply over the past 50 years, what is known as a loss of agricultural biodiversity. This is the unintended consequence of a system that was originally intended to increase productivity and feed the world – large-scale industrialized agriculture.

Moving on, she shows the staggering loss of the cultivated foods we used to depend on – by some estimations a 75% loss of food varieties that have disappeared since 1900. Combined with this is the alarming consolidations in the ownership of seeds, essentially seed monopolies. Three corporations now account for over half of the global commercial seeds market today. This includes hybrids and GMOs, both of which can’t be saved and re-planted for the next year. With this model, seeds have become non-renewable resources, inventions created by companies that farmers are required to buy from year after year.

One company now controls the genetics of nearly 90% of the corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the United States. That same company bought the world’s largest developer and grower of vegetable seeds in 2005. As she so emphatically states,

“Monopolies are hideous with our cellphones, we know this! They are disastrous with food, because food and seeds aren’t just any other commodity.”

Watch her powerful presentation, learn a few things and become inspired to take a more active part in your food!

LUther Burbank Home & Gardens

One hundred years ago, the name Luther Burbank was instantly recognized in a way that we are not familiar with today. Beginning in 1873 and continuing until 1932, 6 years after his death, more than 800 new varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers, nuts and grains were bred, stabilized and introduced by him. He was much better known than the common term “Rock Star” today, because what he did transcended social, financial and political boundaries.

An American botanist, horticulturist and pioneering agricultural scientist, Luther’s name is often entangled with the emergence of bio-engineering and the patenting of plant life. This is truly unfair, as his work was dedicated to expanding the grower’s options, giving them improved varieties that grew, looked and tasted better and were more affordable to the consumer than what was available at the time. There were few thoughts of patenting the plants that he developed, as the Plant Patent Act was passed in 1930, 4 years after his death. He was more interested in getting the new varieties out into the world and into the hands of the growers and gardeners.

The number of varieties that he introduced is enormous, from his first discovery- the potato – to blackberries, plums, walnuts, quinces, lilies, roses, rhubarbs, daisies, dahlias, poppies, the plumcot or pluot, amaryllis, spineless cacti, peas, primroses, cherries, corn, artichokes, sunflowers, the New Burbank Early tomato, day lilies, Elephant garlic, strawberries, thornless blackberries, amaranth, zinnias, nectarines and peaches.

One of his earliest developments was the blight-resistant potato that was exported to Ireland and helped end the famine there. We know it today as the Burbank Russet that is the most commonly grown and eaten potato today.

He transformed 19th and early 20th Century California from a primarily wheat producing state to varied types of fruits. Europe changed from an exporter to a net importer of fruit, especially California fruit, due in large part to Burbank’s fruit breeding and the climate of California.

Other achievements included spineless cacti to help arid Western ranchers provide another, more reliable source of food for their cattle in harsh conditions. The stone-free plums were his and even the now-common bright crimson California poppy that is very well known was originally orange.

The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens is a museum of his home and workspaces where he did much of his thinking and plant breeding. He is buried on the property as per his final wishes to be part of the landscape where he lived. This is the first house he lived in when he moved to Santa Rosa. The second and larger house that he built with the income from an overseas seed sale is no longer standing.

We took a tour of the home and grounds last fall. The existing grounds are only a portion of the original gardens, as much of the land has been sold off in later years. It is impressive to see what was accomplished here.

We took a lot of photos during our visit and wanted to share the following photo essay with you!

Cindy and Eileen are standing at the back entrance to the home.

Cindy & Eileen at Luther's Home

The home with its unique greenhouse where much of the experimental breeding was conducted. The trees are all mature and very large.

Luther Burbank's Home

The 2 story house was considered to be large in its day, and is a very comfortable size even by today’s standards. We were able to tour the ground floor and see how it has been maintained.

The guestbook shows a number of famous and influential visitors, from Henry Ford and Thomas Edison to foreign heads of state and agricultural ambassadors from around the world.

Luther Burbank's Home & Greenhouse

Luther designed his greenhouse, using flat glass panels but creating a rounded structure. The panels are overlapped like shingles and held in place with wooden cross-pieces. The loose set brick floor retains heat and allows water to flow through. There is a fireplace at one end to heat it through colder winter nights. The current configuration has been changed from the original, Elizabeth shortened it after a fire.

Luther Burbank's Greenhouse

Dwarf lemon tree with lemons in mid September.

Miniature Lemon Tree

More dwarf citrus.

Dwarf Citrus

Cindy with Shasta Daisies and her favorite flower, the sunflower. There are rows on rows of these beds, each with different species of flowers and most of them are marked.

Cindy with Sunflowers

Eileen in front of a trumpet bush.

Eileen with Flowers

There were several milkweed pods ready to burst and send their silky fine flossy seeds into the world.

Milkweed Seed

This is what a handful of milkweed floss will yield, only a few seeds! This will be part of the challenge when we help to harvest the milkweed seeds at Painted Lady Vineyards Milkweed Project this fall!

Milkweed Floss

And away they go! There was a breeze during our visit, so they blew away quickly.

Milkweed on the wind

Spineless Cacti.

Spineless Cacti

Colorful Rudbeckia.


Monarch luncheon.

Monarch Butterfly

Bee feasting on Dahlia pollen.

Bee Heaven

A fuschia Dahlia.


Bees having a party!


Cactus Dahlia.


San Marzano Tomato

San Marzano tomatoes are world-famous with a long and storied history as the absolute best plum tomato for sauce and pizza. They are also excellent for canning, peeling and drying. Chefs worldwide prefer this variety to all others for making their signature sauces, and it is the only tomato that is acceptable for making true Neapolitan pizza. Many Americans are becoming fans and learning why this tomato created the peeled and sauce industry in Italy and across Europe.

San Marzano tomatoes are named for where they originate, the Campania region of southern Italy above the “toe” of the “boot”. Valle del Sarno is the valley where the recognized and protected variety is grown. The reason for this strict preference is the soil – a rich volcanic soil from Mount Vesuvius – that gives the tomato its distinct richness and depth of flavor. In fact, they are the only tomato that can be used for a true, recognized Neapolitan pizza! People who have tasted the native tomatoes grown in the volcanic soils claim that they can tell the difference between tomatoes grown there and those grown elsewhere, even if it is similar soils.

San Marzano tomatoes are thinner with a pointier end than Roma tomatoes, with a noticeably richer and mildly sweeter flavor. It has a thinner skin with fewer seeds and a meatier flesh than the Roma, with a higher pectin content that produces the thicker sauces it is famous for. This famous variety was developed from traditional breeding of three Italian tomatoes in the late 1800s; the King Umberto, Fiaschella and the Fiascona. Only the King Umberto tomato is still grown!

San Marzano tomatoes have been commercially popular since around 1875 when the first cannery was built to pack and ship these jewels across Italy and Europe. The popularity of the San Marzano declined during the 1970s as hybrids gained popularity for their thicker skins and tolerance of machine harvesting and marketability, but saw a resurgence in the late 1990s as people realized the flavor that had been lost with the original. Of 27 cultivars being grown in the Valle del Sarno area in the early 1990s, only 2 were selected as being the most representative of the traditional San Marzano. In 1996 the European Union granted Protected Designation of Origin status to the San Marzano tomato.

The San Marzano Redorta is one of the more popular cultivars of San Marzano due to its larger size and prolific production. The name creates some confusion, as this tomato comes from the Tuscany region, which is north of Campania where the tomato originated. It is supposedly named for a mountain – Pizzo Redorta – in the Lombardy region near the Italian Alps, which is much further north still. So, a larger version of the treasured San Marzano that is from Tuscany and not Campania, yet named for a mountain that is almost the length of Italy away? Stranger things have happened!

We do know that it is a great tasting and producing tomato with all of the traditional characteristics that have made the San Marzano tomatoes famous and have brought it back to being a heavyweight in the sauce tomato world. Whether you grow the traditional San Marzano or the Redorta, the flavors and production are sure to win you over.

Heirloom Sweet Corn

Sweet Corn Planting Tips

May is the traditional month to plant heirloom corn. A direct-sow crop, it must not be planted too early as it needs warm soil. Continuing with our historical heirloom history series, below is an excerpt on Sweet Corn from the 1884 “How The Farm Pays – The Experiences of Forty Years of Successful Farming and Gardening” by William Crozier and Peter Henderson.

Sweet Corn

“It may seem presumption in me to instruct the farmer how to grow corn; but as their methods of growing this special variety of corn for table use are probably not as well known as for the field varieties, I will here give them.

All the varieties of sweet corn may either be sown in rows four and one-half feet apart and about six or eight inches between seeds, or planted in hills at distances of three or four feet each way, according to the variety of corn or richness of the soil.

The smaller and earlier varieties as the Tom Thumb and Early Minnesota, may be planted in hills two feet apart each way. The taller variety of the richer the soil, the greater should be the distance apart. Such later varieties as Egyptian and Evergreen require to be planted at least three feet apart, or even more, on very rich soil.

We make our first plantings in this latitude about the middle of May, and continue successive plantings every two weeks until the last week in July. In more southern latitudes, or in warm, light soils at the north, planting is begun a month earlier and continued a month later.

I have repeatedly sold it in the New York markets, realizing as high as $200 per acre, and this, too, at the first wholesale price, the consumer paying about twice as much. An ordinary yield is about 11,000 ears to an acre. In such cases, however, it was either an early crop or a very late one, bringing two or three dollars per 100 ears, while the intervening crops, which came in competition with the full market, often sold as low as seventy-five cents per 100 ears.

The importance, then, will be seen, of striking the market at such seasons when the article will be scarce. The quantity of seed required per acre is from six to eight quarts.”

Find heirloom sweet corn here!

Choose your new favorite heirloom sweet corn.

Modern Day Thoughts and Comparisons

It is very interesting how much attention was paid to the “richness” of the soil. Also, some great pointers to think about if you are trying to bring corn to the local market.

Here are some thought-provoking yield comparisons to our modern corn production. The average yield for commercial hybrid corn in 2010 was 152 bushels per acre. In 2010 the average price of corn was between $3.50- $4.00 per bushel. A bushel of corn in ears is 70lbs.

Higher production yields have not actually produced more income for the farmer in 128 years, due to several factors! Inflation is one of the biggest, but commodity pricing structures are a close second. 

Just for comparison, that $200/acre in 1884 would be worth about $4800/acre in 2010. This means that even with the increased yields of the hybrid corn, 152 bushels/acre at $4.00/bushel is only $608/acre, which is eight times less! Even if the income was $100/acre in 1884, that would be about $2400/acre in 2010- something that many farmers would jump at.

Plant some heirloom open-pollinated corn in your garden this year. OP corn may not have as high of production yield as the modern day super sweet hybrids but it sure does have a richness and depth of flavor that can’t be forgotten.

A Few Tips to be Successful with Corn

  • End wormy corn- We have heard about this tip from many folks, as an old time remedy to the corn worm. After the silks turn brown, apply 20 drops of mineral oil to the tips of each ear. Repeat every other day for three weeks. This not only smother s the larvae but also makes husking a simpler task.
  • There is a lot of folk lore about corn. Here are a few to ponder.
    “Put one fish head in each hill like the Indians did.”
    “Plant the seeds when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.”
    “Corn should be knee high by the Fourth of July.”
  • If you are just growing a small plot in might be better to plant in a block than in rows.
  • Corn has a number of four-legged enemies, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits and deer. Fencing maybe needed to protect young stalks depending on your area.
  • Remember there is more than just sweet corn, visit our heirloom corn department for all the choices available.

Here’s a few recipes to tempt your tastebuds!
Fresh Roasted Garden Salsa
Cajun Chicken Maque Choux
Heirloom Corn and Potato Chowder

Heirloom Peas

Heirloom Peas Have a Long History

Heirloom peas or garden peas originated in middle Asia, from northwest India through Afghanistan and adjacent areas. A second area of development lies in the Near East, and a third includes the plateau and mountains of Ethiopia. In these areas wild field peas have been found, along with many cultivated forms of P. sativum, but wild P. sativum has never been found. Vast areas in southern Russia and southern Europe still have large tracts of field peas growing wild. The garden pea was an early introduction in northern Europe and Asia and as far west as England and east as far as China.

Early heirloom peas were cultivated for their dry seed, similar to today’s “split peas” for soup. The varieties known a thousand years ago had seeds that were much smaller, dark colored from the modern garden peas. They were an ideal supplement to an early hunter gatherer lifestyle that was just beginning to transition into agriculture. They were durable, easily carried and their germination lasted for several years. They needed only a short season to produce food for both man and animals and flourish in soils too poor for early cereal grains which were being adapted to early agriculture at about the same time. No doubt that during times of scarcity of animals to hunt, peas became a chief source of protein.

Primitive garden peas have been found during excavations beneath houses of the Swiss lake dwellers around Morssedorf, Switzerland dating back to both the Bronze and Stone Age. Peas also were found in a Hungarian cave dwelling, believed to date back even further. Charles Pickering says in his 1879 Chronological History of Plants, “Of culinary vegetables, Pisum sativum the only kind that can with certainty be traced as far back as the Stone Age;…” He also mentions a type of Fava bean, parsnips and carrots found in the excavation.

Garden peas have been found in the excavations of ancient Troy. The Aryans from the East are thought to have introduced peas to the Greeks and Romans, who grew them in ancient times. Theophrastus, considered by many to be the Father of Botany, described peas in detail and their cultivation in his Enquiry into Plants in Chapter 8 which is devoted to cereals and peas. He is the author of the oldest existing treatise on botany, having died in 287 BC. U. P. Hedrick wrote about Theophrastus in his 1928 book The Vegetables of New York, “He wrote at a time when gardening, farming, orcharding, and the cultivation of flowers and medicinal plants were far advanced, when all food plants derived from the Old World had been named, domesticated, had their varieties and had been cultivated for many centuries. He was writing in a advanced stage of agriculture and civilization; quotes other books about plants and had much of his information from predecessors whom he looked upon as ancient as we look upon him as belonging to an age long, long ago.”

Heirloom peas were one of the most widely grown vegetables of northern Europe during the Middle ages, as their description and cultivation was evident in almost every early gardening or agricultural book of any language in middle and northern Europe. They were almost as widely grown as the early cereals as an easily produced storehouse of nutrition for the population and for food for the armies of the time. In 1066 they were one of the chief crops grown in England, and by 1400 peas were frequently mentioned in the “Expenses of Collegiate and Monastic Houses”. From the 1400s to the mid 1600s, peas were so commonly eaten that “pottage” and “porridge” were terms meaning peas as well as the dishes made from them. Sugar peas were common and described in John Worlidge’s Systema Horticulture, or the Art of Gardening in 1677.

Eating freshly shelled peas, or what were called green peas became a very popular delicacy with the aristocracy after the restoration of Charles II when they were parched, fried or boiled. Louis XIV was highly fond of them, and so was his entire Royal court. In a letter written by Madame de Maintenon dated 10 May 1696, she describes, “The subject of Peas, continues to absorb all others, the anxiety to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the desire to eat them again, are the three great matters which have been discussed by our Princes for four days past. …It is both a fashion and a madness.” Commoners didn’t partake of “green peas” until the early 18th Century.

Heirloom peas were introduced very early on by European explorers, possibly starting with Columbus himself on his 2nd voyage. It seems they were widely traded and spread rapidly. In 1535 Cartier mentions the natives of Hochelaga (now Montreal) growing peas, and in 1613 French traders obtained peas grown by the Ottowa River by the native tribes. Francisco Vasquéz de Coronado mentions “small white peas” in New Mexico in 1540. In 1614 peas were a food staple of the New England native tribes.

Subsequently, American gardeners have embraced heirloom peas wholeheartedly with many breeders improving yields, flavor and pod size. We have a nice selection in our Heirloom Pea Department for you to enjoy!

Handful of seed

Heirloom seeds, heirloom vegetables and heirloom gardening are becoming increasingly popular today. Many people are turning or returning to home gardening for a variety of reasons, and heirloom seeds figure prominently. Some of these include an interest in fresh, local and healthy foods, others need to stretch the family food budget, some need additional exercise – preferably outdoors, and still others are searching for the lost flavors of the family garden when they were growing up.

All of this interest has created some confusion as to what an heirloom seed truly is. Some think that the term “heirloom” is the same as “organic”. Other folks think that anything that is not organic or heirloom means that it is GMO. To make matters worse, some larger seed companies sell both heirloom and hybrid seeds that are certified organic, further confusing the matter.

Let’s take a look at a few definitions so we can better understand what an heirloom seed is compared to a hybrid or genetically modified seed.

An heirloom is anything of value (though not necessarily economic) to a person, family or group passed down from one generation to other. Examples are furniture, China, silver or seeds. An heirloom is generally considered something worth passing down. An heirloom seed, therefore, is seed from a plant that has been passed from one generation to another, carefully grown and saved because it is considered valuable. The value could lie in its flavor, productivity, hardiness or adaptability. Many heirlooms have been grown, saved and passed down for more than 100 years. Some have history reaching back 300 years or more. To have been saved and preserved for so long, these seed varieties have shown their value to many people and families for an extremely long time.

Most heirlooms have been saved and selected because they have the best flavor and production in home and small market gardens. We get the benefit of this long development cycle, as only the best producing, most flavorful, most memorable and most dependable varieties have made the selection throughout the years. Delicate, weak or fickle varieties are no longer with us.

Open-pollinated is another term sometimes used interchangeably with heirloom. They do not mean the same thing, as an open pollinated seed is simply a variety where the seed can be harvested from the plant, saved, replanted, and the same variety will re grow year after year. This is how we have the heirloom varieties that we have today is because they are open-pollinated. All heirloom seeds are open pollinated, but not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom, as there are new open pollinated varieties being introduced that are obviously not old enough to be considered heirlooms. An example of this is the Oregon Spring tomato developed by Dr. Baggett, Oregon State University through traditional plant breeding for early germination and productivity in the cool Oregon spring.

Organic certification is the process of certifying a crop grown to a strict uniform set of standards. The certification process includes inspections of farm fields and processing facilities, detailed record keeping and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers are meeting the standards which have been set. The USDA sets the standards, and the criteria for meeting those standards. The certifying agency such as Oregon Tilth, CCOF, QAI and OCAI verifies that the grower is meeting the standards set by the USDA. In short, “organic” means only that a crop was grown to a specific set of standards.

A hybrid seed is produced by artificially cross pollinating two genetically different plants of the same species, such as two different tomatoes or two varieties of corn. The cross pollination is done by hand, and a seed that is saved will not grow true to either parent. Thus the farmer or gardener has no choice but to purchase new seed each year. Hybrids are typically bred for commercial use and profit to change the characteristic of the resulting plants, such as higher yield, greater uniformity, more even ripening, improved color and disease resistance. Flavor has only recently begun to be addressed when selecting characteristics for new hybrids.

Hybrids originated in the 1920s and 1930s for small local commercial growers who shipped their produce less than 50 miles to market, and needed more consistent production for a steady supply of fresh produce to the markets. Taste and freshness were still important than, as many people living in the city were recent transplants from the country, and still remembered what fresh produce tasted like. This is completely different from the hybrids of today with the selected characteristics that have resulted in the iconic colorful yet flavorless supermarket tomato that looks and tastes the same year round.

Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO seed have been altered using DNA from completely different species and organisms to give different traits such as resistance to herbicides and acceptance of chemical fertilizers. Some GMO corn, for instance, manufactures its own herbicide in its root structure. Some DNA donors have come from fish, frogs and bacteria. The major crops that are genetically modified are corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat. Sugar beets and alfalfa have recently been deregulated, and potatoes are being studied. Most common garden vegetables are not yet genetically modified simply because the financial return in the market is not present yet.

Two of the better known benefits of heirloom seed include adaptability and flavor. Some varieties of heirloom tomato have been known to adapt to a specific location within as little as 2 to 3 growing seasons, showing better vigor, better production, better flavor and increase disease resistance. This is a result of saving the seed and replanting it year to year. Many people come to heirlooms in search of flavors that they experienced as a child. One of the leading characteristics of heirloom varieties is defined by the depth of flavor that they produce. This single characteristic has been one of the major reasons for the preservation of specific varieties over great spans of time. This is probably one of the biggest reasons for the resurgence of heirlooms in home gardens in the past 10 years, as once people experience the amazing range and depths of flavors that heirlooms offer, they are hooked. Taste is once again becoming a viable characteristic in variety selection for the home garden instead of only production quantity, uniformity, and disease resistance.

People are celebrating the fact that taste trumps volume. It’s the classic quantity vs. quality conundrum, with quality making a comeback.

I’ve often wondered why the Armenian Cucumber was always the preferred choice of cucumber for my grandmother. She said it was the best tasting cucumber and that it was “burpless” which was important to her. I know sometimes folks are very sensitive to eating raw cucumber because of that burping issue.

What causes the burping? Some foods are more prone to producing gas, such as onions, celery, and cucumbers. Foods high in fiber have more of the “gas” forming characteristics which can cause that burping issue. But back to the Armenian Cucumber, which is really a melon (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus) is why we don’t burp. There is a funny group of melons that botanically are melons but are much similar in characteristic to the cucumber (Cucumis sativus). 

I wanted to know more about this Armenian Cucumber, so I referred again to Fearing Burr’s Field and Garden Vegetables of America to read up on the Snake or Serpent Cucumber (AKA Armenian Cucumber).

Though generally considered as a species of cucumber, this plant should properly be classed with melons. In its manner of growth, foliage, flowering, and in the odor and taste of the ripened fruit, it strongly resembles the muskmelon. The fruit is slender and flexuous; frequently measuring more than three feet in length; and is often gracefully coiled or folded in a serpent-like form. The fruit is sometimes pickled in the manner of the Common Cucumber, but is seldom served at table sliced in its crude state. It is generally cultivated on account of its serpent-like form, rather than for its value as an esculent (edible). Well-grown specimens are quite attractive; and, as curious vegetable productions, contribute to the interest and variety of horticultural exhibitions.

Interesting that in 1865 not much was mentioned about the “burpless” quality that the Armenian Cucumber is known for today. I would have to say it is much tastier than just an ornamental for the local county fair!

Give this recipe a try with your Armenian Cucumbers!

Peasant Salad

  • 2 tomatoes cut in wedges
  • 2 cucumbers, sliced
  • 1 small red onion, sliced
  • ½ c olive oil
  • ½ c red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • Dried oregano, to taste
  • Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
  • ½ c Kalamata olives, chopped
  • ½ c crumbled feta cheese or chopped anchovy fillets (optional)
  1. Combine tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in bowl.
  2. Whisk olive oil with vinegar, lemon juice, oregano, salt and pepper. Add to vegetables; toss to coat. Top with olives.
  3. If desired, add feta or anchovies.

Makes 4 servings

Recipe Tip! Redmond Salt is the best tasting salt to use with fresh garden vegetables. A sprinkle on a fresh cut tomato or on a hard-boiled egg is heaven.

Savoy Perfection Cabbage

The remarkable book Field and Garden Vegetables of America by Fearing Burr was one of the first gardening treatises written in 1863 for the American Gardener.

The subtitle is “Containing the full descriptions of nearly eleven hundred species and varieties; with directions for propagation, culture, and use; illustrated”. We love old books because they always tell you what you are going to be reading in full detail right on the title page!

We thought we would share with you a little history of an heirloom from the past. This is a book that has been referenced in many writings and we has been on our list to acquire for a few years. We were lucky enough to find an older reprint in good shape at a reasonable price.

Here’s what Fearing had to say about Savoy Cabbage, in 1863!

Savoy Cabbage

“This class of Cabbages derives its popular name from Savoy, a small district adjoining Italy, where the variety originated, and from whence it was introduced into England and France more than a hundred and fifty years ago. The Savoys are distinguished from the common head or closehearted Cabbages by their peculiar, wrinkled, or blistered leaves. According to Decandole, this peculiarity is caused by the fact that the pulp, or thin portion of the leaf, is developed more rapidly than the ribs and nerves.

Besides the distinction in the structure of the leaves, the Savoys, when compared with the Common Cabbages, are slower in their development, and have more open or less compactly formed heads. In texture and flavor they are thought to approach some of the Broccolis or Cauliflowers; having, generally, little of the peculiar musky odor and taste common to some of the coarser and larger varieties of Cabbages.

None of the family are the hardier or more easily cultivated than the Savoys; and thought they will not quite survive the winter in the open ground, so far are they from being injured by cold and frosty weather, that a certain degree of frost is considered necessary for the complete perfections of their texture and flavor.”

Maybe Savoy Cabbage should be the cabbage of choice in everyone’s garden. We offer the Savoy Perfection Cabbage, which in a 1932 Burpee’s Seed Catalog was described as, “The best Savoy Cabbage in existence. Considered more tasty than ordinary cabbage. The deep green, crinkled outer leaves enclose a solid, tender, light green heart of remarkably sweet flavor. Easily stored for winter use.”

Here is the perfect reason that heirloom vegetables are treasured and valued for what they are- a little different, but with a lot more flavor than their run-of-the-mill cousins.