Grow Heirlooms

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I have four gorgeous new raised beds in the back yard (thanks, honey!) filled with rich organic soil, and I’m hankering to get some seedlings in the ground. If you are too, I urge you to take a look at heirlooms.

heirloomBefore industrial agriculture begat monocrops, which are hybridized or engineered to be high producing and hardy, there were literally thousands of varieties of each vegetable. Often, the seeds of a tomato or a cucumber or a pepper would be handed down through a family from year to year (hence the term “heirloom”) so that within a small village, each family might be growing slightly different cultivars of the same vegetables.

Heirloom vegetables and fruits have been enjoying a renaissance both on restaurant menus and in backyard gardens. Here are a few things you should know if you want to join in too:

  • By definition, heirloom varieties are open pollinated, which means that the plants are pollinated by bees and butterflies and the like. It also means that the seeds of a particular species will reproduce a similar plant the next year. Where it gets tricky is that open pollination also means that plants can cross-pollinate among families—broccoli with cabbage, limes with lemon, etc.—to create some funky hybrids unless you isolate the blooms of each. An easy solution, though, is just to pluck out any sprouts that clearly come from kissing cousins.
  • Heirloom vegetables taste—and look—far more distinctive than mass-produced varieties. I’m smitten with big, meaty Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomatoes; deep gold with crimson striations. Candy-striped Chioggia Beets and scarlet Plum Purple Radishes are sweet, whimsical versions of otherwise staid vegetables. Experiment with several and find ones you like.
  • When you plant heirlooms, you’re doing more than just cultivating a tasty plate. You’re helping preserve the genetic diversity of America’s—and the world’s—crops. As our society relies more and more on monoculture (growing one variety of crop), biodiversity is lost and, along with it, the ability for a species to fight off disease. Think of it this way; the more variation there is in the gene pool of a crop, the more help a plant has to pull from in evolving to fend off constantly-mutating diseases. If a crop is made up mainly of one variety, it can easily be overcome by the more nimble bacteria. And do know, this is an issue; almost 75% of our food’s genetic diversity has been lost over the past 100 years.

Check out Seed Savers Exchange for a dizzying catalog of heirloom fruits and vegetables. For more about saving heirloom varieties, see Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.

This week, if you’re planning your summer garden, be sure to seek out heirlooms.

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Sauteed Radishes with Mint

You may know–and love–radishes in their raw state. But they’re lovely in this delicious side dish, too. Butter adds a bit of richness to this otherwise simple dish. Browning the butter takes it a step further to add a nutty note, enlivened on the other end by the mint.

Sauteed Radishes with Mint

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Sauteed Radishes with Mint


  1. 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  2. 1 tablespoon butter
  3. 1 pound radishes, trimmed and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch wedges
  4. Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  5. 2 tablespoons roughly chopped mint


Heat oil and butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Let butter melt and then cook a bit longer, until it’s a deep golden and beginning to take on a nutty smell, about 2 minutes total.

Add radishes to pan and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook for 8-10 minutes, tossing frequently, until radishes are tender and tinged with caramelization in places. Let cool slightly and sprinkle with mint and additional salt to taste.

  • mountainrn

    Lia – any photos of the raised beds here?

    That recipe looks like red potatoes . . and looks good. My father-in-law’s 87th birthday party is this weekend and he wants lots of Spring recipes. I’m going to add this one along with asparagus.


  • Tina Ruggiero

    What timing! I just planted some heirloom seeds last week (see my blog post @ While this is a first-time experiment for me, I’d love your perspectives about pest management, since I’m trying to grow my little garden in the most earth-friendly way.

  • Lia Huber

    Steph … I DO have a pic. Now if we could just get our next site build up, I could post it in the conversation area! ;-) Soon … promise.

    Tina — good for you! My best advice on pest management is:

    * Soil, soil, soil (and water and sunlight). The better the conditions for growing your plants the less you’ll have to fight pests in the long run; the plants themselves are healthy enough to do most of the work.

    * Plant a variety. Companion planting really works. Nestle in some onions to deter certain pests, and some marigolds to attract them away from your veggies. That type of thing.

    * Ladybugs. If you have an issue early on–especially with things like whiteflies or aphids–I’d let a bunch of ladybugs loose on them. I once cleared nearly 100 rose bushes of aphids in just a few days by letting a colony of ladybugs go to town, where before the farmers would spray all kinds of pesticides.

    * If you have an ongoing problem, look into some natural, liquid oil-based sprays like Pyola.

    Hope that helps — good luck and let us know how it goes! We’ve got a conversation thread going on gardening in the Eco Bites area.

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