traditional plants, traditional practices: ‘the heirloom gardener,’ with john forti

WHEN I SAW NEWS of a popular new garden book called “The Heirloom Gardener,” I thought it would be about growing vegetables or flowers of old-time, open-pollinated varieties maybe. You know: of heirlooms. But John Forti’s latest book is about much more, about not just traditional plants, but traditional practices, too, that serve to connect us to the environment and to one another.

John Forti is a garden historian and heirloom specialist and ethnobotanist, and a longtime leader in the slow-foods movement. He’s currently the executive director of Bedrock Gardens landscape and sculpture garden in New Hampshire.

We talked about a range of topics including a new generation of chestnuts; what the difference between the words “yard” and “garden” is; the impressive properties of yarrow, and how Queen Anne’s lace is “the ancient queen of all carrots.”

Read along as you listen to the November 1, 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 Spotifyor Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Plus: Enter the giveaway to win his new book, “The Heirloom Gardener” (affiliate link) in the comments box near the bottom of the page.

heirloom plants and practices, with john forti



Margaret Roach: I’ve been enjoying dipping into the book myself. And so just to explain, the book is called “The Heirloom Gardener.” So I think we first give a little context to “heirloom” in that sense. To John Forti, what does “the heirloom gardener” mean; what does that term mean? Because I misinterpreted it at first [laughter], as I said in the introduction.

John Forti: Sure. Well, initially Timber Press had asked me to write a book about garden history, and I feel like we’re all looking at history in different ways these days. I’ve posted for many years now to a page called “The Heirloom Gardener” on Facebook. I try to make it a lifestyle page that helps people really consider ways to integrate gardening as a craft into their lives.

And so for me as an heirloom gardener, it’s really helping as environmental stewards so that can each of us preserves our cultural inheritance in our own backyards.

So I write a number of essays that contribute to this idea, but also help, as the word heirloom would indicate, foster a better sense of what heirloom means and why it’s worthy of time to preserve it.

Well, I would just say heirloom plants are typically things that have been handed down through several generations. But they’ve also been selected for the best vigor in the region where they’re grown, or for their flavor.

In recent decades, we’ve spent so much of our time and energy patenting seeds that can be hybridized, really for things like uniformity and shipping. And I think the food movements really helped all of us remember what real flavor can be like, and what gardening so that something achieves full ripeness, and in our backyard, can taste like. So I try to bring that essence into all of the essays in this book.

Margaret: Right. The subheading of the book is “Traditional Plants and Skills for the Modern World.” You say in the introduction that although there are as many people gardening now as during the Victory Garden era of World War II, you say, “Our consumer culture ways have caused us to lose the craft behind cultivating our own seeds, grafting our own fruit trees, and building our own soil.” So that’s the other side of heirloom–these crafts, these skills, this hands-on knowledge, yes?

John: Yeah. I feel like, you know, we were all raised with this idea that let Bird’s Eye do it better, or find a way to let somebody take the work off of our shoulders. But as gardeners know, the biggest pleasure is often in the process. I might not grow older and more wiser as a tech guy, but we all grow older and wiser in our gardens. And every year we learn more about our craft.

And I think what’s been happening with this new local foods movement is that we’re also seeing through the farmer’s markets and Etsy sites, a whole new homegrown American arts and crafts movement that’s land-based. And I’m watching so many gardeners take part in that in small ways that I’m finding it a really heartening time, as much as other things in the world might have me holding my head in my hands [laughter].

Margaret: Oh, I can’t imagine what you’re referring to. Oh my goodness.

John: Yeah.

Margaret: I was very moved by a passage also up front in the book that says, “Things like an old rhubarb patch, the remnants of an orchard, or a lichen-covered stone wall are talismans that help us read the landscapes we inherited.” But you don’t want us to live in the past. This isn’t a book about creating living history museums in our backyards, like Colonial Williamsburg, or Monticello, or whatever. Right? I mean…

John: Right. You know, I think of each one of our landscapes as an inheritance. When we have things like old plants that tell a story of who lived there before us, or a stone wall where you can see the craftsmanship that went into it, or the seeds that have been saved through the generations, they almost call to us to learn the skills to rebuild the wall well, or to go through that seasonal process, that ritual of harvesting the first rhubarb and making wonderful things with it each year.

Because to me, the past is an inspiration in many ways, but we also have to blend this preservation movement with a fresh look at sustainability in the modern world. And to me, they dovetail beautifully. Because there is a lot that was known in the past, when we were more keenly attuned to the seasons and the soil. But we also made lots of mistakes. So the book is a blend of borrowing from best practices in the past, but taking the best of them joyfully into our backyards and our future.

Margaret: So it’s a collection of essays, and it’s arranged from angelica to zucchini [laughter], which made me crack up. As I said earlier, as I have been doing, we can kind of dip in. It’s not like we have to read it in linear order; we can dip into what interests us, what catches our attention. Lots of topics.

And one that I wanted to dip into now together just briefly: There’s one essay, under B of course, called biodiversity. And it’s kind of a plea for diversity in our food crops, and why you think that’s so important. You spoke to this a little bit before when you were talking about all our patented, our damn patented seeds, and how our food—the genetics of our food sources—have become intellectual property and all that. So speak to the biodiversity a little bit.

John: Well, it’s interesting to me that in the world of processed foods, there are more chemists than you will ever see farmers involved [laughter].

Margaret: Yes.

John: And so I think of the John Muir quote that says, “When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” You know, over the last a hundred years, we’ve lost over 90 percent of the genetic diversity among the food crops that fed the world. Every community had an apple they were famous for, or a green that over-wintered beautifully.

And what’s happened is we’ve consolidated seed houses from hundreds and thousands of seed houses across the country, and individual seed-saving, to plants that can be patented so that they can work in the Midwest, where most of our agriculture had been for recent decades. But we’ve forgotten that maybe for the home gardener, we don’t want all of our spinach to come in at the same time. Or maybe we’d like to cultivate something that’s really bred for flavor more than uniformity and the ability to ship a few thousand miles, and then be gassed to turn it red when it arrives at our home.

So to me, it’s that diversity that we look to that brings back some of these ancient grains, and crafts, and processes that reintroduce plants with regional importance and vigor. Because it doesn’t take patenting to do that. People have been saving seeds for eons that are better adapted to their backyard than anything else could be.

It’s a reconnection to me, that brings about not just the biodiversity in the crops, but in our regional landscapes. Because when we think of our yard as a habitat, and we plant that out—whether it’s with the native perennials we’re planting, or food crops—we’re bringing back more of the life that is appropriate in our yard. So the birds that were always there in the yard, but have been disappearing. Or the fireflies. Or the pollinators. So it’s participating in actively rebuilding some biodiversity from our own backyard.

Margaret: Yeah. You just said “yard” a couple of times, the word yard. There’s an essay called yard in the book, and it made me kind of laugh to myself. Because as a garden writer I don’t want to say the word garden, garden, garden, garden, garden [laughter], over and over again in every paragraph I write all these decades. Right? And I always want a synonym. But is yard a synonym for a garden? So what’s a yard to you?

John: To me, a yard is a living space. It’s a workspace. It’s really our own personal habitat. And I think for, especially in the last century, we elevated garden above yard. But historically our yard, whether it was the orch-yard or the herb yard, or the bee yard, or the stable yard, farmyard, barnyard. It’s all part of this connection to place where we cultivated meaningful things to us.

And you know, where I live I think people have this habit of using yard interchangeably. But I’ve worked with horticulturists for decades now that make a great point to distinguish yard from garden [laughter]. And I think it’s a good time to integrate them back, because as we rethink our landscapes and our lawns, it’s an important time to think of one part of this assemblage blends into the next. We curate a space really, with sun, and soil, and productivity, and recreation in mind. So to me, it’s just our personal habitat. It’s almost like building back the idea of a homestead into your landscape instead of a garden, and a place to park your car.

Margaret: I love that, the idea of personal habitat or homestead. And no matter—it doesn’t have to be in rural America, either. A homestead can be wherever you are. I love that idea of looking outside, and going outside, and engaging with it, and feeling like this is my homestead. I think that’s a beautiful idea.

John: Thanks.

Margaret: Yeah.

John: I feel like gardeners have always loved the idea of finding usefulness in the plants they grow. And if you’re growing, whatever, it could be a Cornelian cherry, but when you realize that the fruit of that tree makes a delicious cordial, well, then suddenly there’s a little bit more homestead in your life.

When you realize that you can eat the hostons [the rolled-up emerging leaves] on your hosta. Maybe you’re planting hosta next to kale and tomatoes and integrating all of these things in new ways.

Margaret: You have an essay about Queen Anne’s lace and you call her [laughter], you call it, “the ancient queen of all carrots.” And you explain how carrots when they were brought to the New World were white roots. And today, hundreds of years later—hundreds of years later and a long history of carrot breeding with genetics from various places—but you pull up a root of Queen Anne’s lace, and she reminds you of the history of carrots because the root is pale. Yes? So tell us a little bit about Queen Anne’s lace and why you included this original carrot in the book.

John: Well, as heirloom throughout the book is an underlying concept, heirloom seed-saving is something that reminds us how we can improve a crop with each year, and if you’re not saving the seed actively, how it can degenerate into something like Queen Anne’s lace. I’ve always seen great beauty in that plant. But from some of my earliest museum work, where we found seeds of white carrots stitched up in brown paper in the walls of houses, it tells us stories of the past.

And for some of the earliest colonists in America, it was a white carrot that was brought. If you’re from Eastern Europe, they’re yellow. If you’re from the Middle East, they’re red or purple. And it wasn’t until the Dutch came into New York, that we got the orange carrots that the House of Orange had been cultivating. So to me, they are a great plant to tell us about our heritage and remind us that we all carry parts and pieces of our past in the seeds that we grow and cultivate.

And that if we don’t steward those seeds, then you can see them out in every field and meadow now. They’ve naturalized here in the Americas, like dandelions, something that now is part of the backdrop to life. But I chose to write about it, partly a little tongue-in-cheek for some fun, but also I love the flowers. I press them to put on cards and hang in windows. They look like falling snowflakes. And to me, anything that can bring a great reminder of summer into winter here where I live is a wonderful boon [laughter].

Margaret: So you just said that plants can tell stories like that one does, like Queen Anne’s lace does about the story of carrots. And yarrow, another familiar creature—most people who have ever gardened would know what yarrow is. And you start that essay by saying that plants are storytellers. What is the story that Achillea millefolium, the yarrow [below], tells us?

John: Well, to me, it’s a wonderful plant to blend the science and the chemistry of a plant with folklore and sustainability. Because that yarrow plant is so something that to me takes over my lawn in some areas, happily. It’s great for pollinators. But it was probably one of the first plants that ever impressed upon me that the natural world had some amazing allies in it for me.

I’d been running in a field between my house and the river where I grew up, and I got a cut, a grass cut. I had some old Yankee neighbors that called me over, and they said, “Here, hold this against your cut.” And the bleeding stopped immediately.

And I came to realize that yarrow is a styptic and it’s scientifically proven to stop bleeding, to stanch bleeding. It had deeper scientific roots than I ever would’ve known.

But also the lore that comes down through the centuries is one of the first things that drew me into this field as a garden historian and a horticulturist, because blending that history with science to me is a wonderful way for us to look at moving into the future. I think interdisciplinary learning has become maybe our best model.

When I first started working in museums, a lot of people worked there in isolation. A lot of teachers and professors knew what they knew. But today I look at the strength in education as people coming together and blending all of these various ways of looking at things. And yarrow is just a great example of that. So I go into more detail in the book about that one in particular.

Margaret: Yes. And you confess in the book that you carry a chestnut in your pocket, I understand, since maybe you were in your twenties or something. Is this a true thing? Is there a chestnut in your pocket, John [laughter]?

John: Well, since we’re on Zoom, I’ll have to admit I’m wearing some pajama pants.

Margaret: Pajamas?

John: So there’s no pocket today while we speak. But yes, I was given that by an old man, who I knew when I was the horticulturalist at Plimoth Plantation. He had saved it from the last living chestnut that he’d known when he was younger. And he was an amazing piece of history himself. His father was the last herbal apothecary in town, and then he went on to study chemistry and the science of medicine.

But to me, it brought to life this whole other world. You know, he taught about times when chestnuts made up as much as 70 percent of the deciduous woodlands in America. And it was just something that was disappeared before I was born, largely.

But I remembered at the same time, my grandfather every Christmas cutting crosses into the tops of them so he could roast them without them exploding. And I always had a fond place in my heart for them.

So when I started in my professional career, I started working with different chestnut preservation organizations to reintroduce disease-resistant chestnuts. So at Plimoth Plantation, I planted them in multiple places. And probably my favorite career moment was actually going back to Plimoth Plantation to do a talk.

I went down to the Wampanoag home site where I’d spent a lot of my time working, and I saw at least a dozen kids up in a tree playing. And my first instinct was to hear my grandfather’s voice well up in me and say, “You kids get down out of that tree.” And then I realized they were probably the first generation of Wampanoag kids in over 100 years to be harvesting chestnuts. And they were harvesting bushels of chestnuts from those trees.

So I continue to plant them everywhere I go, whether they’re seeds from surviving trees, or crosses that exist because of some of the good work that’s being done through preservation societies. But again, it’s another plant that reminds me of habitat, because it didn’t just provide food for people. It provided food for so much of the wildlife that supports us.

And in a local foods movement way, it also provides an important source of protein. And it’s always great in my mind to consider other sources of protein, like the native beans that we can grow, and the nuts that can be a part of our landscape as well.

Margaret: I want wanted to just ask you is, there’s many, many… Again, there’s an A to Z in this book. So are there some things that are John’s personal, the things that you collect or are passionate about, or grow at home the most? Are some of them your things particularly? You know, we each have as gardeners… [laughter]. You said, beans. I’m obsessed with beans. You know what I mean—are there things that are your things?

John: Well, I would say absolutely. And I think that’s the strength of gardening. We should all be growing what we love, and what means the most to us. But for me, I would say in every landscape, I think of the base layer in that palette as being native plants, so I write and I say about indigenous plants and their place in this.

But then I write about heirlooms that are a particular cultural significance for me because of where I live, or because of my own ancestry. I also lived in Japan as an exchange student when I was younger. And so I’m fascinated by Japanese plants.

And again, I think we can be far more diverse in our thinking then to just say, you must plant native, you must plant heirloom. But when we plant the things we really love, I think we take better care of that place that we’re cultivating.

So for me, I’d say some of the native plants that I put in that I truly love, I tend to collect things like Jack-in-the-pulpit. I think they’re fascinating. I love heirloom vegetables of all types, not just the poster children like cabbage and kale and tomatoes. But really funky, interesting heirlooms that to me, it just becomes a pleasure to be a part of the process of starting with a seed that I knew, and planting it, and eating it, and saving the next generations. So I try to get the most interesting, funky heirlooms that I can possibly grow and keep trying new things. Last weekend, I was harvesting celeriac [laughter].

But my garden is a place that above all I would say is just a pleasure to watch the wildlife, and a place to understand that what I’m doing connects up to my neighbor’s yard, to the community, and that I’m building green bridges and green corridors through what I’m doing. And really, I try to make the book a reminder that that’s something that we all can have our hands in on, and that we really can participate in meaningful change with.

Margaret: And that’s what you also do, or try to inspire, on the Facebook page. What’s the name of the Facebook page again, please?

John: It’s called The Heirloom Gardener John Forti.

Margaret: It’s so popular. Oh my goodness [laughter].

John: It’s amazing to me. Some posts go out to millions of people—every week posts go out to millions of people. And I love that in a world where we might not always think we can use our voice, a book and a page like that help move along educational content, and make it fun and inspiring. And so I feel really privileged to watch it go out into the world like this. And I think both the timing of the book and this page have really fallen into a time when I think everybody’s looking to embrace that connection that we realized during pandemic was so much more important to us than we’d known or that we remembered.

Margaret: Yes. Well, next time you visit the program I hope we’ll talk about Bedrock Gardens, where you work today, and about more. But I’m so glad you made time. Thank you so much, John.

John: Likewise. Thank you so much for having me, and I hope everybody enjoys the book and finds my page.

(Illustrations from the book “The Heirloom Gardener” by Mary Azarian; used with permission of the publisher. Author photo by Rachael Montejo.)

enter to win ‘the heirloom gardener’

I’LL BUY A COPY of John Forti’s new book “The Heirloom Gardener: Traditional Plants & Skills for the Modern World” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Is there an heirloom plant, or a traditional skill, that you want to shout out as a mainstay of your personal garden practice?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll choose a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, November 9, 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 November 1, 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).

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