Food & Drink

Porcelain, silverskin, striped; these heirlooms will grow on you

Gardeners continually look forward with an eye on the past. We plan for next year’s plantings as we finish our summer and fall harvest.

When it comes to what we plant, we’re also in a perpetual state of rediscovery, finding for ourselves what past generations grew and loved. Heirloom tomatoes prove everything old can taste new again.

That heirloom trend has spread through many crops and ornamentals, from apples to zinnias, with scores of new/old varieties brought back into nursery catalogs each year.

Each seed has its own back story. Every heirloom comes with a little history lesson or memorable folktale. It’s not just a gimmick; it’s a way of assuring that variety’s survival. We’ll remember “Mortgage Lifter” or “Aunt Ruby’s German Green” – and plant those tomatoes with funny names in our own gardens.

Next up in the heirloom trend could be garlic. Beloved around the world, garlic makes a logical historical herb; it’s been cultivated for 5,000 years with an estimated 600 known varieties.

Garlic grows great in California, which produces 90 percent of the nation’s crop. Among the top commercial garlics is Monviso, an Italian heirloom.

But the wide stinking world of garlic is so much more than the basic white bulbs we see in stores. Porcelain, silverskin, striped; its classes sound almost sexy. But where to begin?

A dozen pages of heirloom garlics appear in the new bulb catalog of Harvesting History, a young company devoted to old varieties. Its website offers hundreds of vegetables, herbs, flowers and bulbs as well as an abundance of vintage tomatoes.

Dedicated to heirloom bulbs, its first catalog debuted this fall. Filled with old-fashioned flowers that filled many a grandma’s garden, “Harvesting History: Seeding The Future” is a lovely 52-page booklet, available free from the company’s website,

Fascinating as well as mouth-watering, the garlic section offers dozens of varieties from exotic places: Pyongyang (a North Korean heirloom that’s hot like red pepper); Romanian Red (huge cloves with considerable bite); and Khabar (a mild purple-striped garlic from Siberia).

Also featured are such American heirlooms as Nootka Rose (a delicious old variety from the San Juan Islands off Washington); Inchelium Red (found on an Indian Reservation); and Youghiogheny Purple (a full flavored Rocambole garlic grown in Pennsylvania for at least 85 years).

If you’re tempted to try some of these selections, October and November are perfect for garlic planting in Northern California. Get the bulbs in the ground by mid-December for fresh garlic next May or June.

According to Harvesting History’s Barb Melera, the New York-based group intends the bulb catalog will be “the first in what we hope will be a long line of beautiful historical pieces that celebrate our horticultural legacy.”

In addition to providing access to rare seed and bulbs, Harvesting History hopes to inspire other gardeners to embrace the past while looking forward. That could start with a little garlic.

Debbie Arrington:, 916-321-1075, @debarrington.