If you’re a gardener or would like to be one, a sure way to get fired up is to sign up for the seed catalogs from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. They will send the catalogs in the middle of winter, after the holidays, when you’re so over snuggling in and sipping hot chocolate. The old-time feel of the catalog combined with images of the seemingly endless array of tasty fruits and vegetables you can grow will make you want to don your gingham dress and head outdoors to plant your spring crop. That’s why I was so excited to delve into The Heirloom Life Gardener: The Baker Creek Way of Growing Your Own Food Easily and Naturally(2011), by Jere and Emilee Gettle with Meghan Sutherland.
The cover photo shows a farmer’s hand, leathery and caked with what I’m sure is nutrient-rich soil holding the most perfect golden beet, presumably having been just pulled from the ground. As the proprietors of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, photos of Jere, Emilee and their daughter, Sasha, adorn the pages of the book. Their deliberate throwback country style will make you wonder if Jere ever has a five o’clock shadow or if Emilee has bad hair days or wears yoga pants around the house. Then, their personal story will draw you in and make you want to learn even more about all the reasons they do what they do.
Stories are so much more memorable than facts and figures could ever be, and Jere Gettle begins by telling the story of his childhood growing up on the land in Montana. The son of a homesteading family, he was used to being looked at a little differently in the 80’s when most other families had fallen in love with the convenience of processed foods and the year-round availability of produce from all over the world. Jere became passionate about gardening and old, heirloom varieties from a very early age.
As he got older, he was dismayed that many of his favorite varieties were starting to become replaced with more and more hybrids and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These varieties are often bred for characteristics like uniformity of appearance, durability to withstand long journeys to supermarket shelves, and resistance to chemical pesticides. Heirlooms, on the other hand, have been handed down from generation to generation by virtue of their flavor which is often far superior to hybrids or GMO varieties.
Jere was compelled to start saving seeds on his own, recounting how he would fill his bedroom with sheets of drying seeds while he slept in a sleeping bag on his parents’ kitchen floor. Jere then gives a glimpse of how large the world of traditional agriculture really is when he talks of traveling the world and collecting seeds from places like Mexico, Thailand, and Guatemala. He reminds us that farmers markets are not some trendy thing that enlightened suburbanites do on the weekends. Instead, they have always been the primary way that food is sold to consumers in many parts of the world where Piggly Wiggly, Safeway, and Super Wal-Mart do not exist.
Aside from the story behind the Baker Creek beginnings and the growth of their successful business, Jere and Emilee give basic tips on how to grow your own food with considerations of soil, light, pests and garden tools. All of this is followed logically by the complete A-Z guide of fruits and vegetables which gives information about growing, seed saving, and warding off pests for each plant or plant family.
The book also includes some very interesting history about the origins of different foods and how other cultures use them for medicinal and culinary purposes. In Italy, garlic is revered for its flavor in many foods, but in India, the Hindus frown upon its culinary use and they consider the odor to be vulgar. If you’re not quite sure what to do with some of these foods, the kitchen tips are helpful and encourage using more than just one part of the plant. For example, when harvesting turnips, don’t waste the greens because they are delicious when steamed or sauteed.
Finally, there’s the photography. I am drawn to pretty pictures like a raccoon is drawn to aluminum foil glistening in the moonlight. At the least, these photographs will make you yearn for a rainbow of heirloom vegetables growing right in your backyard. Or, if you’re like me, they will fan the flames of unrealistic expectations for your garden. Either way, you will want to try, try again.
For the growing number of people that are concerned about the increasing complexity of today’s industrial food supply, The Heirloom Life Gardener is a great read. While the book is less about how, exactly, to grow your own food and more about why you should, it could be just the inspiration you need to get started.
Category: Book Reviews