Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Successful Year of Heirloom Gardening

Last Friday, I opened my mail box and was surprised to see my 2013 Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog.  Where did the fall go?  In fact, I am rather embarrassed to see that I have posted nothing to my garden blog in months.  Time really has gotten away from me lately.
I've been mulling over my 2012 garden for awhile, trying to decide what worked, what didn't, and what lessons I want to put into practice for 2013.  Chief among them:
Seed saving is a fun and rewarding practice.  Harvesting lettuce seed was surprisingly easy and well worth the effort.
Seed packages don't lie.  If a lettuce is marketed as bitter in hot weather, believe it.  I won't make that mistake again.  

I am not a container gardener.  No matter how many gardening books claim that container gardening will yield bountiful results, it will just never work for me!
For the most part, I was pleased with the heirlooms that I chose for the 2012 garden.  They survived drought, high heat, and pest infestations just as well as my few non-heirloom varieties.  That being said, there were several clear favorites and a few varieties that I will not be growing again. 
Loved It
Zucchini, Strata D'Italia (Baker Creek) - This zucchini was a great find! The inner child in me wants to jump up and down from excitement, exclaiming that I have found my zucchini and will never stray! However, inexperienced gardener that I am, I am at least aware that one year of success is not the most reliable endorsement. With that in mind, I will grow this zucchini again next year, and hope that it continues to surpass my expectations in Trial Year 2.
Strata D'Italia grew strong and flowered well into August, even after the plants started to slowly die back. What a fascinating site to see a half-dead zucchini vine with vibrant orange flowers, followed by a beautiful squash. This is a big zucchini, with long, white stripes and tender white flesh.  Its flavor is mild and very pleasant. I got a huge harvest from 4 hills - I would estimate that I picked 50 zucchini!   
Pepper, Bull Nose (Seed Savers Exchange) - I love everything about this pepper. Its name. Its size. Its taste. Its origins at Monticello. What a fascinating pepper to go along with a fascinating history. I started these peppers from seed in March, and they grew into strong plants. The peppers transplanted well into the garden, and I did not have a single instance of wilt disease. That being said, there was a point, about mid-July, when I really thought I had a failure on my hands. The first set of fruit was a total loss. Between blossom end rot and an undiagnosed wrinkling condition (maybe drought-induced?), I was really disappointed. But the plants seemed healthy, so I picked off the first set of fruit and tried my best to patiently wait for a second flowering.
By mid-August, I had a prolific second set of fruit, larger in both size and number than the first set. They turned a beautiful shade of red and tasted delicious - sweet and juicy. From 6 plants, I harvested 35 fruit. 
Lettuce, Tennis Ball (Seed Savers Exchange) - What a contrast to my Merveille lettuce! This plant is a cute, compact variety of butter head. Its leaves are light green in color and the taste is mild. The heads were definitely best when harvested young, but my only real trouble was eating salads as fast as the heads were ready to pick!  I attempted seed saving with this variety, and will be trying to coax lettuce plants from my seeds come spring.
Swiss Chard, Bright Lights (Baker Creek) - Swiss Chard is an acquired taste.  My husband grew up eating it, but I knew nothing about it until we met.  In deference to him, I've planted different varieties in our garden the past few years.  Last year, I planted half white-stemmed chard and half bright lights chard.  The bright lights variety was so pretty that I fell in love.  I even forced myself to try it and to my astonishment found that it really improves in flavor after half a dozen tries.
Dill (Baker Creek) - My dill grew tall and strong, providing an endless array of fresh sprigs and dried seeds for winter use.  My only complaint (yes, I was warned but I'm ashamed to admit that I thought I could handle it!) is that I now have dill growing all over my garden and not just in the little patch to which it was relegated.
Tomato, Sungold (Conventional, Local Nursery) - I just don't have the space to seed start tomatoes.  Which is truly a shame since there are so many intriguing heirloom varieties.  I have to say, though, that I do love sungold cherry tomatoes.  They are so sweet and juicy - and really prolific!  I have no idea how many I harvested, as I was completely overwhelmed, but for a solid 6-8 weeks I picked large bowls full every second or third day.  This was from just 3 plants!  
Hated It:
Lettuce, Merveille de Quatre Saisons (Baker Creek) - How could a French lettuce with such a beautiful name be so utterly unpalatable?  Ugh.  I just can't make myself love bitter lettuce.  Admittedly, this lettuce was gorgeous - young, medium green leaves with tips of blushing rose.  Mature plants of a deep, almost burgundy coloring.  They look beautiful in a salad mix, provided you don't actually eat them.  I've learned my lesson here, no matter how gorgeous they look in that seed catalog...taste before beauty!
In truth, if you like bitter lettuce, Merveille may really be a good match for you.  It is hardy and prolific.  Few insects bothered it, and it was ready to pick much earlier than other greens.  Just be prepared for the bitter taste...
Carrots, Chantenay (Baker Creek) - I had such hope for this carrot. Despite 3 years of tilling and amending with compost, our soil is still a work in progress. As a result, I have best luck with carrots that are marketed for clay or poor soil quality.  This carrot immediately caught my eye, since its description mentioned that it grew well in heavy or clay soils. Reviewers had also given it good marks for taste. 
I, on the other hand, was not impressed. First, although they were supposed to be a half-long variety, the description led me to believe they would be the normal width of a carrot, if not a bit larger. A handful of my carrots did meet this description, but most were extremely scrawny. Worse, they succumbed to two infestations - the green tops became the prey of a green worm that looked very similar to the tomato horn worm while the roots were eaten by some sort of larvae infestation. Yuck! About 1/2 my crop was infected with the larvae. The rest, I harvested, brought indoors to the kitchen, and cleaned. I roasted a batch in the oven and they tasted...terrible! They were slightly bitter and almost completely flavorless. 
I may have blamed the lack of success on the weather, but the Parisienne carrots, planted a mere foot away, were not bothered by either pest. 
Potatoes, Desiree (Seed Savers Exchange) - My absolute, all-time favorite potato is the Yukon Gold.  Not only do I love the taste, but my grandfather planted them every year in his garden.  I really don't know why I've strayed from planting them, but I guess I feel like I need to make this quest for the most perfectly wonderful heirloom potato.  For the second year in a row, I forced myself to choose from the many lovely-sounding heirloom potato options offered by Seed Savers Exchange.  And for the second year in a row, I was disappointed.  Desiree potatoes are certainly not prolific.  I only got two or three potatoes from each seed potato planted.  Plus, they were all small and scrawny.  And they tasted like dirt.  I really think that next year I'm going back to Yukon Gold.
Roma Tomatoes (Conventional, Local Nursery) - I planted Romas because I wanted a variety of paste tomato that would ripen all at once for canning.  And yet, they proceeded to ripen one at a time over the course of 2 1/2 months.  This alone was reason to be extremely disappointed.  Worse yet, I really didn't like the flavor or mealy texture. 
Possibly Worth Another Try:
Beet, Bull's Blood (Baker Creek) - At my first picking, I thought I was in love. I roasted a batch and reveled in their sweet, tender flesh. A couple of weeks later, I pulled a few beets out of the bag and peeled them to grate over a salad. And I discovered that my lovely little beets had become bitter and fibrous. Where did I go wrong? Was it the excitement of a beautiful day spent in the garden that initially caused my misplaced love? Or, did they deteriorate that quickly in storage? I'm tempted to think that something went wrong in storage because I just opened my first jar of pickled beets and they were marvelous!  (I also made those the day I harvested my beets.)  
Pepper, Lipstick (Baker Creek) - This is my second year growing the Lipstick Pepper, and I have developed some mixed feelings. On the one hand, the peppers are adorable - cute little pimento-style fruit. And so tasty too -- sweet and tender. Everyone in my family loved these darling little peppers last year and begged me to grow them again. This year's results were disappointing. This is not a prolific pepper, but this year produced even less fruit than last year's plants. The plants were stunted, and the majority of fruit that set never turned from green to red. I'm going to blame the weather, but I'm really wondering if it might be wise to try a different miniature sweet pepper next year.
Carrots, Parisienne (Baker Creek) - This really is a cute little carrot, and it definitely resisted pests better than my other variety.  In fact, judging on these facts alone, the Parisienne would be the ideal choice for heavy soils like mine.  Quite frankly, though, it was a real pain to clean, being a bit too small to make peeling practical and a bit too groovy to rely solely on a good hard scrub.
Beans, Contender (Baker Creek) - What a disappointment.  These beautiful beans were the belle of my garden last year, but this year they were a complete failure.  The plants grew tall and strong, but then were hit by drought and high heat right before flowering.  As a result, very few flowers produced pods.  I harvested no more than 4 or 5 handfuls from 4 rows.
Stay tuned for updates on 2013 garden planning!


  1. Glad to see you back. I need to do an end of the year recap for my blog, too. (By the way, when I got the Seed Savers Exchange magazine that is for the public, they offer several varieties of heirloom tomatoes as plants. They ship them to you at the date you request.)

  2. Thanks for the suggestion! I will have to look into that option.