The Heirloom Life Gardener

The Heirloom Life Gardener is at first blush an odd book.  On paging through the layout before reading, one is struck by the contrast between beautiful pictures of heirloom vegetables, organic farms, and markets all over the world, next to peculiar, over-posed and forced tableaux of the Gettle family and their friends recreating the “atmosphere” of the Ozarks in the late 1800’s.  These strange photos end up being only a minor distraction from a book that is filled with information on heirloom vegetables, seed saving, gardening techniques and a personal history of the formation of a well known seed company dedicated to saving unusual and worthwhile varieties of food plants.  This is an honest call to the reader to grow heirloom seeds and help save endangered, old-fashioned crops from extinction, as well as practice organic gardening and earth-friendly ways of growing food. It is in this core of the material that the true passion of a dirt gardener comes through with charm and intensity.

Early in the book the history of the recent seed-savers exchange and the rise in popularity of heirloom seeds is covered, as well as the story of how Jere Gettle went from farming to starting the Baker Creek Seed Company. This personal look at the “making” of an heirloom seed preservationist is missing from many existing books on the subject, and I feel could have been expanded upon even more. The chapter dealing with seed collecting around the world is particularly interesting and covers trips from an early, ill-planned excursion into Mexico, to later journeys to Thailand and Guatemala. This section is central to what makes a company like Baker Creek extraordinary and is at the heart of what is important to so many gardeners today–the need to keep continuity with the past as more and more types of vegetables and food plants are lost to the mass produced, over-hybridized varieties bred for corporate farming.

The final chapters of the book cover gardening techniques and practices focusing on organic principles and old-fashioned sense that is often now labeled as “sustainability.”  Following that is a list of major crops and tips on how to grow them including the best, or most interesting, heirloom varieties and how to use them once you begin to harvest. There are also a number of good tips on seed-saving as well as information useful to the average reader who does not farm over 100 acres about growing in smaller plots, containers and terraces. The strange pictures of “old fashioned” life in the Ozarks aside, I enjoyed this read. Now I have to chase down the wonderful looking variegated ‘fish peppers’ pictured in a couple of the photos.

Steve Gerischer, garden designer and educator
Los Angeles, California