This is the time of year when we read and hear a lot about what is going to shape our lives for the coming year. What color should we paint the living room? According to which paint seller you believe, it is either a shade of coral or green. Technology buffs tell us drones will be THE techie gadget to have and fashionistas are touting a 1970s influence on women's spring wardrobes. Just when I thought I might not live long enough to endure the return of fringed jackets and earth-tone pantsuits . . .
Although I do not claim to be an expert garden forecaster, I do think there are a few heirloom plants that may prove to be trendy among North Carolina farmers. You don't think foods can be trendy? Perhaps you are not old enough to remember all those tasteless no-fat cookies that lined supermarket shelves in the 1980s and frozen TV dinners that made us 1960s kids feel like we were dining with the Jetsons? While my crystal ball may be a bit cloudy, I offer the following list of heirloom plants I think will be popular additions to this year's backyard gardens and large produce farms.
1. Pink Okra
In recent years, okra has been a darling of fine dining menus. I'm not sure why we Southerners always sliced, battered and fried this versatile vegetable, but it is delicious grilled, stuffed and baked or eaten raw, fresh in the field, which I just tried this summer, and loved. Pink Okra is perfect for those who do not like the "slime" associated with most varieties and although this plant is more hibiscus than true okra, it produces an edible pod with mild okra flavor and beautiful, deep pink blossoms that are delicious. Shelf life for the flowers is very short, so pluck them from these compact plants and add them to salads for a wow factor. Seed source: www.rareseeds.com
|Pink Okra is beautiful in both flower and vegetable gardens|
2. Christmas Beans
For bean lovers, this one is a special treat. Large, creamy white lima-type beans and deep red striping make Christmas beans a beautiful dish and the pot liquor (cooked bean broth) they produce is rich and meaty. Boasting chestnut flavor, these beans are great to lightly cook, chop and add to stuffings. I received seeds from a Western NC man whose family heirlooms include Christmas beans, but they may be purchased at www.purcellmountainfarms.com. Warning: Christmas beans need a long growing season and lots of trellis to climb.
|Cooked in water, Christmas Beans make a hearty broth|
3. Peppers (Sweet & Hot)
North Carolina is an ideal growing climate for a variety of heirloom peppers and with a burgeoning regional palate that appreciates spicy foods, (think Thai, Indian and Vietnamese dishes) fresh peppers are in demand. On the hot side, red and yellow Thai peppers, Lemon Drops and Omnicolor are some of my favorites. Piquillo and Anaheim are two varieties that pack a flavorful punch, especially when roasted, without scalding the tongue. Prolific producers, a single pepper plant will satisfy the needs of most backyard gardeners and most plants require little growing space. Seed sources: www.chilepepperinstitute.org or www.rareseeds.com or www.sowtrueseed.com
4. Interesting Eggplants
To produce a variety of interesting flavors and intriguing colors and shapes, it is hard to beat growing eggplants. Resolve to include some new additions to your garden plan and prepare to wonder why you always grew only large purple eggplants. One of my favorites is Aubergine Burkina du Faso, a compact fruit that is the perfect individual serving size, although the plants grow taller than most eggplants. Be sure to take every measure to protect seedlings since every pest loves an eggplant. Seed source: www.rareseeds.com
|Aubergie Burkina du Faso eggplants range in color from yellow to red|
Cream Sausage tomatoes are my absolute favorite canning tomato. Creamy white, the fruit is shaped like a Roma and is a bit mealy and dry when fresh, but cooking these tomatoes releases intense flavor. Perfect in soups, stews, pies, and salsas, Cream Sausage plants are compact and seldom require more than a small stake to keep them upright. Caution: Cream Sausage plants appear to wilt and their leaves sometimes have a dusty appearance, but after observing them for several years, I now accept their puny appearance as part of their appeal and the abundant fruit they produce makes up for the plants' drab style. www.rareseeds.com
|A determinate tomato variety, Cream Sausage produces abundant fruit|
As with all heirloom plants, select the best fruit or vegetable specimens to save for seed. After an initial purchase or gift from a gardening friend, heirloom seeds may be saved and planted every year of your gardening life. And, unlike those 1970s fashions, these trendy foods will be welcome guests at your dinner table.