Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Vegetables for the Maritime Garden

From the First Lady to the front lawn, vegetable gardens are sprouting up across the country in record numbers. Not since the Victory Gardens of the Second World War have this many people begun to grow their own food. Why? Well, everybody’s got to eat. We’re all feeling the pinch of a strained economy and hoping to save on expenses. Plus, a growing awareness of the carbon-fueled miles clocked to bring our meals to the table has many of us looking for local, organic, and more sustainable alternatives. You can’t get more local than right outside the backdoor, or more affordable than a packet of seeds. Today, growing your own food is affordable, hip, and delicious.

Edible Heirlooms, by former North Dakota farm boy, now Northwest author and avid gardener, Bill Thorness, is right on the money. In recent years, “heirloom” has become a loosely bandied-about phrase—more a horticultural branding effort to gain market share than a description of the range of human effort required to keep these venerable plants alive. From preserving biodiversity to creating a competitive niche for small family farms, Thorness offers thoughtful and compelling reasons for the preservation and continued cultivation of these living pieces of history.

Those of us blessed enough to reside in “Cascadia, the ever-green landscape seemingly defined by water, whether it be the rivers, lakes, ocean, or omnipresent rain,” recognize the unique challenges of our terroir. Edible Heirlooms focuses on the growing conditions of our maritime climate, found in coastal areas from San Francisco to Vancouver, British Columbia, from the foothills of the Cascade Range to the Pacific Ocean. A chapter on site selection and season extenders outlines tips for making the most of our long, yet relatively cool growing season. New Gardening Energy for Every Season promotes the notion of gathering a group of like-minded gardening friends and neighbors to join you in your efforts. Whether you’re building a neighborhood garden, supporting the local food bank with excess produce, or hosting a lively winter seed swap, Thorness believes in fostering community.

Profiles of twenty-six heirloom vegetables make up the body of the book. From arugula to tomato, Thorness includes cultivation guidelines as well as information on harvesting and storing your produce. For those looking to close the heirloom loop and save their own seed, he offers advice on selecting for vigor, pollination factors, and gathering. Charming illustrations by Susie Thorness, Bill’s wife, accompany the vegetable descriptions. The beautifully rendered pictures ornament the page (and made me want a set of colored pencils,) but do not distract from the valuable content.

A comprehensive bibliography and an extensive list of seed sources rounds out Edible Heirlooms, a little book with a big job. Thorness defines heirloom seeds as a “living lesson on human history and the nature of civilization.” He maintains that their cultivation and preservation are fundamental to the future of our health and the planet we live on. And you thought it was only a tomato.

Lorene Edwards Forkner, garden writer
Seattle, Washington