You can’t see them, but this wild plum thicket is alive with red-winged blackbirds.
Someone asked me the other day why I choose certain varieties of fruits and vegetables. The answer to that question is a bit complex, as I choose them for different reasons, and in some cases, they chose me because they were here when we bought the place.
First, I only plant open-pollinated varieties. I do this for several reasons. Most open-pollinated varieties are also heirlooms. The definition of an heirloom can vary, according to the expert you talk to. For some, anything that was available prior to the end of WWII is an heirloom, as that was when hybrid seeds first began to take over the garden catalogs. For others, the definition is a plant either 50 or 100 years old. A few real diehards say an heirloom should be a plant that has never been commercialized but only passed down through a family from one generation to another. Although I grow some in each of those categories, I often prefer the older plants that have withstood the test of at least a century. That means they have been grown in a wide variety of conditions, offer some appealing qualities that make people want to keep growing them and save their seeds, and that they taste good.
Apple blossoms against a spring sky.
Second, I choose plants that are productive. By that I mean productive under the conditions in my garden. I don’t fuss over my plants — they get basic care. The older trees in the orchard don’t even get summer water. I need them to be able to produce well under those conditions. I don’t use a lot of soil amendments, fancy fertilizer, soil testing or such. Just the basics: composted animal manure and bedding, adequate water and Azomite for minerals. No sprays other than the occasional jet of water to knock off aphids. So my plants have to be tough enough to make it under these conditions and still produce well.
Third, I choose varieties that have some special qualities that may make them valuable to me. For example, my summers are typically very hot, but not humid. I need plants that can take the heat and continue to flower or set fruit. I also have springs that can go from 34 degrees to 84 degrees within a week; my garden has to be able to stand up to such extremes.
Cloud cover moving down the mountain.
Since I know that Sweet Mother Nature can (as Gene Logsdon is fond of saying) just as easily be Old Bitch Nature, I grow different varieties of a particular vegetable to hedge my bets. So in addition to the pole bean that does well in hot summers, I also grow some of the ones that like a cool, moist environment. The latter may not do as well most years, but if we have weird weather, they might be the ones to give me a crop. I also try to grow multiple-purpose vegetables. Tomatoes that are good for both eating fresh and canning, and a bean that can be used as green beans, shell beans and dry beans, are more useful to me than a single-purpose vegetable. Take tomatoes. Mortgage Lifter is almost exclusively an eating tomato, although it does make pretty good juice. Amish Paste and Romas are good for tomato sauce and drying to preserve in oil, while Principe Borghese is strictly a drying tomato. However, if you mix all of them and cook them down, they make good sauce or ketchup, because of the differences in the tomatoes. Rutgers was developed as a canning tomato, but it’s also pretty good eaten fresh; St. Pierre is even better on both counts. Matt’s Wild Cherry, Chadwick’s Cherry and Yellow Pear are snacking and salad tomatoes. I’ll grow about 70 tomatoes, about two-thirds of which are specifically for preserving, and toss any excess eating varieties into the ketchup and tomato sauce.
Yellow Delicious apples ripening in the north orchard (as opposed to the house orchard).
Although I have some regulars I’ve been growing for years, I periodically add to my stock. Sometimes that’s because I run across a cherished heirloom variety grown by a single farmer or family that has become available through the efforts of one of the seed exchanges. Or it may be because a plant breeder has created an open-pollinated variety with important qualities. For example, a guy named Dave Christensen set out to create a corn that would help to preserve the many indigenous corn varieties of the desert highlands in America. He used 70 different corns to create what he called Painted Mountain Corn. It’s a beautiful corn, with a wide variety of different colors, very hardy and high in antioxidants. It may be the most genetically diverse corn on the market. When you’re living in an era of rapid climate change, this kind of diversity can help ensure that you will continue to have corn no matter what.
So, those are the reasons I grow what I do.
Cleaning up the tomatoes before frost.
Here’s what’s on this year’s seed list. The ones marked with an asterisk are new for this year.
Asparagus (it was here when we bought the place; if I had to make a guess, I would say it’s Mary Washington, one of the most common older varieties from 50+ years ago)
Broccoli, Di Ciccio
Bush Bean, Black Turtle
Bush Bean, Blue Lake
Bush Bean, Cannellini
Bush Bean, Dark Red Kidney
Bush Bean, Pencil Pod Black Wax*
Bush Bean, Pinto
Cabbage, Pak Choi
Cabbage, Red Acre
Carrot, Danvers Half Long
Carrot, Red Core Chantenay
Chard, Fordhook Giant
Corn, Daymon Morgan’s*
Corn, Golden Bantam
Corn, Reid’s Yellow Dent
Corn, Six Shooter
Cucumber, Boston Pickling
Cucumber, Crystal Apple*
Cucumber, Marketmore Eggplant, Black Beauty
Eggplant, Long Purple
Eggplant Ping Tung
Garlic, Unknown variety
Lettuce, Blend (Lord knows what’s in this, but it includes romaine, loose leaf, crisphead, Batavian and butterhead varieties in many colors)
Cucumber, National Pickling
Melon, Eden Gem
Melon, Hales Best
Onion, Australian Brown*
Onion, Red Wethersfield
Onion, Walla Walla Sweet
Pea, Amish Snap *
Pea, Mammoth Snow
Pea, Tall Telephone
Pepper, Alma Paprika
Pepper, California Wonder
Pepper, Round Cherry*
Pole Bean, Kentucky Wonder Pole Bean, Lima King of the Garden
Pole Bean, Rattlesnake
Pole Bean, Romano
Pole Bean, Wax
Popcorn, Japanese Hulless
Potatoes, German Butterball
Potatoes, Red (I think the variety is Sunset)
Pumpkin, Small Sugar
Radish, Mix (Like the lettuce, this one has several varieties in it — purple, pink, red and bicolor) Radish, White Icicle
Summer Squash, Black Zucchini
Summer Squash, Cocozelle
Summer Squash, Early Straightneck Prolific
Tomato, Matt’s Wild Cherry*
Tomato, Amish Paste
Tomato, Chadwick’s Cherry*
Tomato, Mortgage Lifter
Tomato, Principe Borghese
Tomato, St. Pierre
Tomato, Yellow Pear
Winter Squash, Blue Hubbard
Winter Squash, Spaghetti
Winter Squash, Waltham Butternut
Now, I don’t necessarily grow all of these every year. For one thing, I don’t have room. For another, if I’m growing a squash variety for seed (you don’t have to save seeds every year for everything you grow, with the exception of onions, which don’t usually store well) and I want to make it easier on myself, I won’t grow another squash in the same family, to decrease the risk of cross-pollination. But with a lot of plants — such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas and lettuce — it’s not an issue because they self-pollinate. In other cases, I may grow a few of a particular variety to have some to eat, but grow a lot of another variety if that’s the one I want to save seeds from.
These sunflowers will soon be chicken food.
In addition to these typical garden fruits and vegetables, I grow herbs, both culinary and medicinal, and flowers for pollination, beauty and medicinal use. I also harvest wild herbs for medicine, such as horehound for cough syrup and St. John’s wort for an antiseptic salve. We have a variety of apple, pear, domesticated and wild plum, sour cherry, sweet cherry and peach trees, as well as oddities such as one Asian pear, a mulberry and one apricot. Then there are fruit trees that probably came from a passing bird or a human pitching an apple or pear core after lunch. I’m pretty sure they aren’t planted-on-purpose trees, as they’re in odd spots all over the ranch and usually just single trees all by themselves. We also have wild blackberries and I’m hoping to start some blackcap raspberries, hazelnuts and mulberries from seed this year. As you can see, when it comes to our food supply, variety is not something we lack!
Tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings.