dreaming of a ‘new heirloom garden,’ with ellen ecker ogden

THE SUBTITLE of Ellen Ecker Ogden’s latest book, “The New Heirloom Garden,” tells it all. “Designs, Recipes, and Heirloom Plants for Cooks Who Love to Garden” is how it reads. Throughout her career of writing, lecturing, and teaching about kitchen gardening, Ellen always reminds us, it’s not just the literal harvest and what we can cook up from it, but also the opportunity for beauty and for intimate engagement that the vegetable garden can offer.

Ellen Ecker Ogden, with several books on food and gardens to her credit, was co-founder of the breakthrough seed catalog called The Cook’s Garden, which introduced U.S. gardeners to a whole new palette of possibilities that back then were more familiar perhaps in Europe, but not here. She lives and gardens in Vermont, and I’m glad she’s back today.

Plus: We’ll have a giveaway of her new book “The New Heirloom Garden” (affiliate link); enter in the comments box at the very bottom of the page–and Ellen will send the winner some seeds from her garden, too.

Read along as you listen to the February 15, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

ideas for new heirloom gardens, with ellen ogden



Margaret: How’s your snowbank, Ellen?

Ellen: [Laughter.] It’s drifting.

Margaret: Oh, O.K.

Ellen: It’s high. It’s quite high.

Margaret: Yeah. The new book is very beautiful. Congratulations.

Ellen: Thank you so much. It’s a treat to hold the book after so many years of working on it.

Margaret: Yes. I remember visiting your Vermont home years ago, and looking out the window of your house onto your own edible garden. And I can still remember, because it struck me so much—it was as beautiful as any ornamental garden. And a lot of us, myself included, don’t manage that, and grow our edibles in sort of regimental rows and blocks, and not much design involved. But you want to encourage us to go further, don’t you?

Ellen: Well, it’s true. And I guess I hadn’t realized how different I garden than some other people. But I have a small plot, it’s less than a quarter-acre. And so pretty much every inch of it was planned with what I call my five-year plan, and that included the parterre garden to the south of the house. And it’s right up snug to the house, so I can get into it very easily and look at it from the upstairs windows.

Margaret: Yes. And so it’s a parterre, it’s a four-square. Is that what we call that?

Ellen: Yes. Yes. It’s a European style, very classic design with… Really it’s small. It’s quite small, but I manage to grow quite a lot in that small space.

Margaret: Yeah. So the word heirloom in the title of the new book, “The New Heirloom Garden,” it’s a word that has many definitions and interpretations. But I think by that, in this case, you’re not really defining a particular time period in history, as much as sort of what you say… You write that these are varieties, the ones that you showcase in the book and the various garden designs that you include plans for, you say: “They are varieties that are not associated with large-scale commercial agriculture.” Yes?

Ellen: Right. Well, I’ll start off by telling you a little bit about how I started to write the book, because as a writer yourself, you know that you don’t, unless you’re writing a novel, you don’t really know how it’s going to evolve. And the seed for this book really was planted in 2016, when “Garden Design” magazine called me and asked me to design a couple of heirloom gardens for an issue they were doing.

And at the time I kind of knew what an heirloom was, but I really wasn’t sure. So I called Amy Goldman, who had just done a beautiful book called “Heirloom Harvest,” and I asked her. And then it kind of took off from there. I suddenly became quite fascinated by heirlooms, and what is an heirloom, and what is the difference between an heirloom and an open-pollinated [variety]. And it just kind of snowballed a little bit, and became a book proposal, and eventually a book. But it started from my not really knowing myself what heirloom is.

Margaret: Right. And so for people who don’t know, even less than we knew back then when that phone call came [laughter], all heirlooms are open pollinated. They have to be that. They’re not hybrids. Yep. But people disagree on what the number of years they’ve had to be existing for and so forth. And so we don’t have to go into that, but just so that… It’s not heirloom or open-pollinated—all heirlooms, whatever age they are, are open-pollinated.

Ellen: Are open-pollinated, right. And that’s what Amy explained to me. And she used the date, roughly 1950, before hybrids were introduced to gardeners and garden catalogs. But I actually went to the dictionary, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and the definition says heir, which means inheritance, and loom, which means tool. So it was a way to pass along something valuable without a money exchange or paperwork. And so I thought that was wonderful definition of heirloom.

Margaret: Right. And in the new book, you, I think very smartly, you have these kind of pages every so often that are like interviews with seed people, people who are seed-savers, and collectors, and so forth, who were involved in this work. And they’re, obviously, alive today since you interviewed them. And they are creating, a lot of them who are seed breeders and so forth, they’re creating modern heirlooms, heirlooms of the future.

So in other words, the age doesn’t matter, except in the classical definition like Amy Goldman shared with you. There’s also going to be heirlooms 100 years from now, or 50 years from now, some that are being developed right now, open-pollinated varieties, by some of the people you interviewed in the book.

Ellen: Yes, that’s right. I like to say, “Grow something new that is old,” but we’re not talking about old seeds, we’re just talking about a new way of really embracing some of these older vintage varieties, heritage varieties. And actually the interviews in the book were my favorite part, because I came up with all the designs, and I came up with all the recipes, but I realized there was some missing pieces there because I was still learning.

You know, I’ve been gardening for 30 years and I still feel like I can learn something new every day, and feel so humble that there’s so much to learn. And so I interviewed people like Will Bonsall, who has the Scatterseed Project, and his message about seed saving was about diversity. And Ros Creasy, who we all know her as the pioneer of edible landscape design. And she said, flavor is the most important thing.

And so I found that there were so many different perspectives on an heirloom garden, and mine was just… It was mostly kind of like Ros’s, I garden for flavor and for fragrance, but also because I love the idea of being able to save my seeds and pass them along to other gardeners.

Margaret: Right. And there’s, I think 12 themed gardens in the book. You offer designs, to scale, with plant lists that are coded to go in each part of the grid and so forth. And they’re very different, and one of them is in fact themed as a seed-savers’ garden, I believe.

So that could be a focus, a theme, whatever your design is, whether someone decides to use the one in your book, or you can also establish a theme for the garden to come. There’s one, I think one about Italian vegetables, and I mean, all kinds of wonderful themes—vegetables that have richness of color. So tell us about just kind of the range of design ideas.

Ellen: Yeah. Well, you know I hesitated putting designs in here because I kind of want people to use it like a recipe book, in that it’s just a way to inspire ideas. And hopefully gardeners will look at it and really spring off into their own creative way of how they’re going to design a garden that fits into their landscape.

But some of the designs… Some of my favorite, for instance, is the Ark of Taste Garden, which is based on the slow-food endangered list of plants, varieties that may be lost if we don’t start preserving them. And then the new American Heirloom Garden, which is based on Thomas Jefferson’s garden, and what would he do?

And I was able to interview Peter Hatch, and he gave me this wonderful historical perspective on whether he thought Thomas Jefferson would appreciate… What he would think of GMO seeds, for instance. [Laughter.]  And they were just really fun. So I think a lot of the themed gardens were really inspired by just getting to interview gardeners from all over the country and getting their ideas.

Margaret: Well, and you must have had fun kind of dreaming, because visualizing—and this is the time of year that we’re at right now, we’re in February—and in the Northeast, especially where both of us live, but in a lot of the country, it’s still not time yet.

And so there’s a lot of conceiving, and dreaming, and imagining. And so what I took away from it, because I have the same raised bed grid out in my yard for edibles that I’ve had, I don’t know, for 30 something years, since I got here. So it is what it is. I’m probably not going to at this stage redesign and… Exactly. But I looked at all the different garden designs in your book, and I thought, “Ooh, wait a minute. There’s even elements here that could make my layout more beautiful, as well as more productive.”

So I wanted to sort of talk about some that we could take away, whatever our design is, that sort of elevate the aesthetic. I mean, a lot of the pictures had vertical elements, your tripods, and tuteurs, towers of vining things, and certain plants that you specify you spec out on the edges of other things. Which I just visually, I was thinking, “Ooh, that would look gorgeous next to my tomatoes,” or whatever. You know what I mean?

Ellen: Oh, I do. And that’s so great because it’s exactly what I want you to take away from the book. You know, I started as an art major. I was an art history and a fine arts major. And I’ve tried to translate that into my garden, and my garden designs, in both of my books. And so I really feel that starting with a design on paper and then figuring out how visually it’s going to look interesting, because so many vegetables are ground-huggers, and it’s much nicer to be able to grow them up on a trellis. It adds drama and height to the garden, as well as texture.

I mean, the plants, like the purple ‘Trionfo Violetto’ pole bean is just the most elegant plant that I grow in my garden, and I could see it in perennial gardens. I could see it growing over the front porch. There’s just so many ways to grow vegetables, and they don’t have to be relegated to the vegetable garden.

Margaret: What are some of the things that we could, those of us who are a little more regimented and boring [laughter], that we could dress up sort of the edges? Because there’s always some space along the edges. And sometimes I’ll put lettuce on the shady side in the summer, or parsley. Any other ideas? You use flowers also, a lot more liberally.

Ellen: Yes. Well, I think that was one of the hardest things to do in the book, because being from Vermont, we have a fairly limited growing season. So I wanted this book to be accessible to gardeners all over the United States. So I needed to figure out what could grow in the South, what could grow in the West. Not just things that I knew well, but things that perhaps I’d like to try if I were growing in other places.

So there’s a wide range of plants. And again, mostly suggestions in the garden. But for instance, melons. I’ve never really been able to grow melons here, but the ‘Moon and the Stars’ watermelon and the ‘Jenny Lind’ cantaloupe are two that I’ve always wanted to try. And I must confess, I try them every year, but they never quite fruit.

But things like artichokes, I’ve learned, I can grow, and I grow them every year. I start them in March and put them out in April, and I usually have gorgeous little buds in mid-July.

Margaret: And they’re beautiful plants, really. I mean, they’re structural, I guess I would say. Is that what I want to say? Structural?

Ellen: Yeah. I mean, they’re really fun to watch if you don’t pick them, which I often don’t, because I like to just let them go to purple flower. And so again, that’s a wonderful example of putting an edible plant in your perennial border.

And something like peas, peas are just the most beautiful… Peas and beans are my favorite plants, mostly because I love vines. I’m kind of obsessed by growing vines all over the place. And I love the way that some of the old heirloom varieties, like the ‘Lincoln,’ will just grow so tall. There’s one called ‘Tall Telephone,’ which grows to be about 10 or 12 feet tall. And they’re just really fun to grow.

I guess what I mostly want to convey in the book is that growing food should be fun, and ways to turn work into play by designing a garden, and then just mixing and matching colors, and flowers, and textures, and fragrance.

And of course, putting a bench in the garden is very important because you need to take time to sit and observe, and listen, and taste, and all of these things that really are the reason we garden. But sometimes we forget that gardening is all about opening the senses.

Margaret: And of course the only drawback of the bench is that sometimes all those delicious peas never make it into the house. [Laughter.] I sit there eating all of them.

Ellen: That’s true, but that’s where you sit down and you eat those alpine strawberries, because they’re not supposed to make it into the house. They’re supposed to be eaten right in the garden.

Margaret: So I wanted to talk about some of the varieties you love, and you’ve mentioned a few already, but before we start on that, we should just say, wow, this is a crazy time for gardeners, and especially for seed-ordering gardeners, who might want to grow edibles because, whoa, everything is…

It’s not sold out as in there is none, it’s that it’s not in packets, they’ve exhausted the seed that was already packed up in the warehouses and they have to restock. And it’s hard to do that safely during COVID with too many employees in the same space at the same time. So anyway, there’s great delays in getting seed.

But because you have always loved unusual things, and old varieties, and so on, you’ve often had to hunt things down. So this maybe doesn’t feel… It’s been a challenging pursuit. Maybe this doesn’t feel so different for you, this sort of treasure hunt kind of thing that we’re all going through right now?

Ellen: Well, I haven’t experienced delay. You know, I save most of my seeds, so I grow them again, or I get them from other seed-savers. There’s a wonderful Seed Savers Exchange annual book that I pore over. It’s about 500 pages long, and you can get seeds from seed growers all over the country. You don’t have to be dependent on seed catalogs.

And so you’re right, I’m not really dependent on seed catalogs, but of course I’m like any other gardener, I love to dream a little bit and try something. But I do have my favorite catalogs, and usually they’re the smaller, regional catalogs where I know where and how they’re growing the seeds, rather than if they’re just buying them from some commercial grower.

Margaret: Sure. It was funny when I saw the seed catalog list in the book, I thought, “Oh, that’s identical to mine.” So great minds think alike. [Laughter.]

Ellen: Well, it might’ve even come from you, Margaret.

Margaret: You never know.

Ellen: I always say we get our best ideas from other gardeners, and you are certainly one of my favorite gardeners.

Margaret: Oh, well, thank you. That’s very sweet. So one of the garden designs in the book that got me thinking is called the Herbs, Greens, and Aromatics Garden: Wild and Cultivated Salads. And I suspect that salad bowls on the table at Ellen Ogden’s house are a little more interesting, both visually and flavor-wise, looking at this garden design, than for a lot of us. Like colorful beet greens and chervil. Tell us about some of the things that we, without a lot of difficulty, could make a little room for, and spice it up, and make it more beautiful in the salad bowl?

Ellen: Oh, well, I love this question. When we first started The Cook’s Garden catalog back in 1984, we really just focused on lettuce and salad greens because our garden was Zone 3 and it was the only thing we could successfully grow without losing it to frost. And so we imported a lot of Italian salad greens and French greens, and did have wonderful salads.

And I still feel it’s the Number 1 thing that I will always plant in my garden, are lettuce and salad greens. So there’s chervil, claytonia, purslane, the golden purslane that actually grows upright instead of hugging the ground. I grow a lot of the lettuces from the Wild Garden Seed catalog. I just love their mixes.

And, you know mesclun really just means miscellaneous greens. And it’s what the peasants harvested for centuries. And it’s sort of ironic that we’re now paying $9 a pound for it, and it tastes like nothing in the grocery store. [Laughter.] But it’s still, I think, the healthiest and the easiest crop to grow for all gardeners.

Margaret: Well, along with that, you also have… I mean, we both love ‘Bull’s Blood’ beet, and anyone who hasn’t tried that, and has the energy to hunt down some seeds, that’s a great one, I think, with these beautiful wine-colored leaves, that are wonderful as baby beet greens, and really dress up a salad bowl, I think, for instance.

Ellen: Right. And ‘MacGregor’s Favorite’ beet greens are grown really just for the tops, not the roots, which is another good one, and it’s kind of a perennial. So when you cut it, it comes again. It’s a cut and come again.

Margaret: So ‘MacGregor’s’ as well as ‘Bull’s Blood, ‘O.K. And then there was some sort of edible flowers in there. I think you had borage, is that right? Borage?

Ellen: I don’t have the book open in front of me, but I do love borage. Borage is kind of a large plant, so you really only need one or two. But it’s such a wonderful pollinator plant. I grow lots of different nasturtiums. I probably grow about 20 different kinds of nasturtiums.

I have what I call my 80/20 rule, which is 80 percent tried and true, the things I’m always going to grow each year, and then 20 percent new and different, that I will experiment with each year. And so one year I grew lots of different nasturtiums, or course I wasn’t very good at keeping the tags in place. [Laughter.] I have no idea which ones are which, but it was fun.

Margaret: And what about mache? I saw that. And I saw some cresses in the list, too. I have to say I haven’t really grown cress a lot, or mache a lot. Tell me a little bit about those.

Ellen: Oh, cress. Well, Wild Garden Seeds has this ‘Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled’ cress, which is kind of hot and tangy, and to me it’s better than arugula. Arugula is a little bit bitter, but cress is hot, like a mustard, but it’s got little tiny leaves like a parsley. So a little bit goes a long way in the salad bowl. And you sow it, and probably 10 days later you’re harvesting it, and it’s just a fabulously healthy, delicious green.

And mache is a little trickier. It’s a European green, or at least I see it in Europe year round in the farmer’s market when I’ve been there. And it’s a cool-weather crop, so it loves early spring, and it loves late fall. And it has spoon-shaped leaves that have a slightly nutty flavor. And again, it’s mostly about the texture and the color, and the way it looks in the salad bowl, as much as the flavor.

Margaret: Huh. I forgot to ask with the purslane, and you said you grow this golden one, that’s a little more upright. Do you just pinch off what you want from day to day? Or just harvest it all at once? I mean, I’ve never grown it for that purpose. I’ve only grown in my driveway, Ellen [laughter]. Accidentally. You know what I mean?

Ellen: Well, that’s good too. Purslane is one of those neglected weeds that I think we should all embrace. It doesn’t have a lot of flavor, but it’s very high in Omega-3. And the golden purslane looks like the regular purslane. It looks more like a jade plant. It grows upright and it has that kind of succulent leaf. And if you cut it right above a leaf nodule, it’ll keep growing.

It’s not a hugely vigorous plant, but it’s a nice plant to add to the salad bowl. When I grow mesclun, I grow things in individual rows and then mix them together in the salad bowl, rather than do a mixed packet, because in a mixed packet, they often grow at different times. And so you’re going to get your arugula and your mustard, but then the mache and the slower things like the purslane are going to take a lot longer.

Margaret: O.K. So in the last couple of minutes, I just want to give a nod to the fact that, like the seed company you co-founded was called The Cook’s Garden, like the subheading of this book explains, it’s for cooks who love to garden, and so forth. That’s a theme. And you’ve studied cooking, and so on. And the back section of this book is recipes.

Margaret: And I loved how, when you tell, like for your bread and butter pickles [above], which by the way, looks like a great and very simple recipe, you specify you’d like us to use ‘Boston Pickling’ cucumbers, I think, right? [Laughter.] You have favorites, right?

Ellen: Well, first of all, thank you for noticing the recipes. I still consider myself more of a cook than a gardener. And of course the two go hand in hand when you’re growing food. But in the recipes, I specify heirloom varieties that you can use, because I consider a lot of the heirloom varieties to have the better flavor.

And so those Boston cucumbers are better pickling cucumbers, I think, than just a generic old pickling cucumber. But you know, who’s to say? Flavor is such a personal thing. But when we had The Cook’s Garden, we always had tasting weekends, where we would have people come and taste our beans, and all the tomatoes, and carrots, and even the parsley, we’d have 12 different kinds of parsley, and we found that there was always one that was a favorite.

And it’s very much like the Italian sagras, getting together with people, and tasting food, and talking about the flavor of food. It’s just such an important piece that I wish there were more opportunities to do.

Margaret: Well. I really am enjoying the new book, “The New Heirloom Garden.” Ellen Ecker Ogden, thank you so much for making time today. And as I said, we’ll have a book giveaway. And I hope I’ll talk to you soon. And I know I’m going to be growing some different things this year, if I can find the seeds. [Laughter.]

Ellen: I’ll send you seed, Margaret. Thank you so much. It’s such a delight to talk to you and I look forward to hearing more about your garden.

(Photos from “The New Heirloom Garden,” used with permission.)

enter to win ‘the new heirloom garden’

I’LL BUY A COPY of Elen Ecker Ogden’s “The New Heirloom Garden” for one lucky reader. And Ellen will send the winner some seeds from her garden, too. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the bottom of the page:

Do you have any beloved heirloom edibles in your garden, whether old or more recent open-pollinated varieties that you cannot imagine being without?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I will pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, February 23, 2021. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the February 15, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. margaret says:

    AND THE WINNER IS: Thomas McGuire. Thank you all for the enthusiasm about your vegetable gardens and favorite open-pollinated varieties — lots of great suggestions!

  2. Ved Sud says:

    I have been growing flowers and vegetables over many years but I don’t have any heirloom plants. I would love to try and grow some. Do they require extra care?

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