Heirlooms are more than just delicious ingredients or beautiful flowers--their seeds offer us a connection with the earth, and each one tells a story. Author and garden lecturer Ellen Ecker Ogden was inspired to preserve the diversity of plants that are slipping away after learning that we have lost over 85% of the plant world in the last century to extinction. In The New Heirloom Garden, Ogden inspires us with a history of seed saving in this country, then guides gardeners of all levels to create their own heirloom gardens with tangible gardening tips, twelve themed garden designs, and detailed resources. The first half of the book shares specific garden plans, plant keys with descriptions, plant and seed wish lists, interviews with gardening experts, and even tips and tricks to handle your own local weather. The second half of the book contains 55 recipes for delicious entrees, sides, drinks, and desserts that can be made from each vegetable, fruit, and flower grown in your garden. Readers will delight in making Fennel and Watermelon Salad, Cucumber Summer Soup, Fire Cider, and Winter Squash Pie. It's a book designed for readers to bring to their local supply store, take outside into the garden, and then enjoy in the kitchen.
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The Art of Growing Food
“Here, try one of these,” I’ll say when you visit my heirloom garden, offering you a handful of sugar snap peas, a sprig of chervil to tingle your taste buds, or a sweet Fraises des Bois strawberry. “Look at this!” I’ll say, as I carefully peel away the deep mahogany leaves of a fall Treviso radicchio and pluck off a bitter leaf, or “Smell this,” as I point out a vanilla-scented white nicotiana.
I may be able to entice you to try something new from my kitchen garden, but digging deeper in search of the old-fashioned varieties, those delicate fruits, fragrant flowers, and open-pollinated heirloom vegetables, is the secret to unearthing your own favorites and establishing a lifelong desire to grow a food garden. And it all starts with a seed. Watching green shoots emerge from the ground—active, robust, and alive—is proof that seeds are pre-equipped with everything they need to send forth a root, a shoot, and a leaf. All I need to do is insert them into the soil, step back, and watch.
Why we garden is as individual as the plants themselves—for food, for beauty, to escape, or simply for exercise. Yet we all start with the same three things—seeds, plants, and soil—and each of our gardens will be completely unique. I planted my first garden fresh out of art school and just after starting a graphic design business. It was a way to blend the colors and textures of plants with my love of cooking and eating.
It would be stretching the truth to say my first garden thrived. There was a constant battle with the weeds, and the garden hose didn’t quite reach, the plants were frequently thirsty. Yet the thrill of dashing to the garden just before dinner to clip a basket of baby artichokes and a fistful of cosmos kept me at it. I reveled in fewer trips to the grocery store in favor of planting everything I might eat throughout the year. It gave me immense satisfaction to know I was part of the natural cycle of the seasons that made up a year in the garden, and it still does.
Back then, I didn’t know that starting with a design could make a difference in the way I felt about my garden. At the time, it actually felt like a lot of work to get out into the garden and not much fun. Working along with my husband, the goal was to grow as much as we could to feed our family of four, which meant that I’d spend the entire month of August standing at the stove, canning and freezing beans, spinach, and broccoli. At the sign of the first frost, we’d harvest potatoes and place them in the root cellar along with cabbage, kohlrabi, leeks, beets, and carrots packed in sand. It was more a way of life that allowed us to live off the land, as stewards and recipients of healthy organic food.
In 2003, my relationship to the garden changed when I moved from the ten-acre farm to a smaller plot in a village setting. With neighbors on either side and less than a quarter acre, it was a challenge to transfer my garden skills from a large Victory garden style to something more compact. It required me to think small, which is how I discovered the art of growing food. Instead of growing everything I would need for a full year, I reduced my plant wish list to only those foods that I could not buy at the local farmers’ market or through a CSA (community-supported agriculture). The plants and flowers I chose to grow reflected my vintage 1905 house, which involved growing and rediscovering heirlooms.
I started with a five-year plan, mapping out my future garden areas by first taking note of what was already growing. There was an antique apple tree in the backyard and two overgrown heirloom lilacs on either side of the porch. Knowing nothing about garden design, I took day trips to visit gardens through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days tours, returning home with lists of plants and design sketches in an attempt to organize my landscape. What surprised me most about these forays to visit beautiful gardens was that many of the most elegant gardeners grew only ornamentals. Edible gardens either did not exist or were kept far out of sight, behind a barn or garage, often sadly neglected.
I garden because I love to eat. It’s that simple, and it became my goal to teach myself how to design kitchen gardens, at least partly in order to make it more inviting to be in the garden and turn “work” into “play.” The way to do this was to create simple designs that transformed growing food into something fun and engaging, rather than feeling like effort. In 2011, my book The Complete Kitchen Garden was published, with twelve kitchen garden designs that were both beautiful and productive, along with recipes to inspire the cook to plant a seed, watch it grow, and then sit down at the table to the full satisfaction of eating from his or her own garden.
Good gardeners make growing a garden look easy, but gardening takes time, experience, and an eye for plant material and placement, which is why starting with the basics and a solid plan makes sense. We all want that weed-free, everblooming, overflowing harvestbasket type of garden, yet, in fact, gardening starts by getting dirty and devoting time to tasks that are not always rewarding. When growing a food garden, try to think about how it is more than a place to grow food. It can heighten your awareness on every level and become a place that taps into all of the senses; we inhale more deeply, look more closely, taste with appreciation, listen with curiosity, and touch everything.
With this new book, I offer more of my kitchen garden designs and recipes, with a focus on heirloom varieties in order to bring back the best-tasting vegetables, the most-fragrant flowers, and the forgotten fruits that grow in your backyard. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to dig more deeply into why heirlooms are important for protecting biodiversity, to listen to the stories, to learn more about the politics of seeds, to meet experts in the field, and to think more about how you can become a seed saver. Seeds may look small, but they hold a lot of power and lore.
You may have a one-square-foot plot rubbing shoulders with a kitchen door or a wilderness waiting to be tamed, but planting a garden of any size is an opportunity to dig deeper into the past, to rediscover older varieties that have largely been dropped from the seed catalogs, to change the way we have been gardening for the past century, and to turn back the clock to pay attention to why seeds matter in the long run.
In a world where most supermarket options have largely dulled our palates and choices are homogenized, food gardens are more important than ever. Tasting food pulled from the ground and twisting off a green stem, or picking up an apple dropped from a tree at the peak of ripeness, is the way I wish we all ate. A true garden settles into a space where the garden and home merge, becoming an extension of you, opening the senses in new and inspiring ways, and ultimately creating a sanctuary for living. An heirloom garden is an opportunity to plant a piece of history that provides a deeper connection to the food you eat, the people you love, and the landscape that surrounds your home.
—Ellen Ecker Ogden