John Fendley, a.k.a. Farmer John, compiled for L.A. at Home a list of the top heirloom seeds that Southern California gardeners are ordering this season through his Sustainable Seed Co.
Fendley, whose company is based near the Mendocino National Forest, was motivated to collect old varieties after he noticed that the number of broccoli seeds in the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange catalog dropped from about 80 types in the 1980s to only four or five in 2003.
"I wondered, is there anyone else freaked out that there are only a few broccoli varieties left to grow?" he said.
Fendley came to Northern California from Texas to study herbs in 2004. He had worked in environmental planning and historical preservation and later operated a garden center in Texas. When he launched Sustainable Seed Co. in 2008, "I had been buying and hoarding as many heirloom seeds as I could get my hands on."
Last year, Sustainable Seed Co. moved its operation from Petaluma to a 15-acre farm in Mendocino County. "We wanted land there because it's the first county in the country to outlaw genetically engineered organisms," Fendley said.
The company doesn't have a printed catalog, but its online store is populated with 1,600 mouthwatering photos of veggies, herbs, grains and a few heirloom flowers. The company grows about 60% of its inventory; other seeds are contract grown on small family farms, with an emphasis on domestic sourcing.
Mystery varieties make their way to the company's seed bank when customers offer seeds that have been in their families for generations, often from the "old country." Fendley verifies historic varieties by referring to his collection of century-old seed catalogs, which he treats like a research archive.
"It's so exciting to unearth the history of a seed and keep it alive," he said. "Every seed has a story. It's usually about a person, family or group of people, a culture or a heritage."
Here are the top heirloom seeds that Southern California gardeners are ordering this season.
Red Scotch Bonnet pepper. One of the hottest peppers you can grow, more than 20 times hotter than a jalapeño. The globular fruit ripens to about 1¼ inches long, with wrinkly, fire-engine red skin. “Use it in dishes that call for Jamaican jerk sauce,” Fendley said.
Goldmans' Italian American tomato. “SoCal loves this tomato because it produces extremely well in the warm weather,” Fendley said. Heirloom’s deep ridges give it an unusual shape. Big flavor, meaty texture. Named by cookbook author Amy Goldman after she found the tomato at a roadside market in Cernobbio, Italy.
Bush Sugar baby watermelon. Popular with small-space gardens. “You can find this juicy melon hanging off high-rise balconies, in pots on posh decks and community gardens,” Fendley said. “It's perfect for two, and the whole thing fits easily into the fridge.”
Jing Orange okra. This unusual Asian okra is known for its stunning color, so Fendley suggests planting it in the frontyard, where “passersby may never know it's edible, but they'll be mesmerized by its hibiscus-like flowers and horn-shaped orange fruit.” Recommended for soups and stir-fry dishes.
Watermelon radish. With creamy white skin and watermelon-pink flesh, the radish is as beautiful as it is flavorful. The ball-shaped vegetable measures about 4 inches in diameter. When sliced, it's a vibrant addition to salads, Fendley said.
Opalka tomato: This Polish heirloom dates back to the turn of the 20th century, Fendley said. The fruit is known for making an intense, thick, dark red tomato sauce with concentrated flavor.
What are you not growing but should? Fendley recommends these three for Southern California gardens:
Blue Streak tomato. "This is going to be the next big tomato, with purple-blue skin," he said. Introduced by tomato breeder Tom Wagner, this certified organic variety produces dark, cherry-sized tomatoes with a slight smoky flavor and low acid flesh.
Vintage Wine tomato. "This tomato has been a secret of the best Northern California winery gardens since its release last summer, but soon Southern Californians will discover its juicy, Merlot-colored flesh," Fendley said. "The flavor is rich, sweet, meaty, but still thin-skinned."
African Devil pepper. Sustainable Seed Co.'s most popular pepper of the year. "This is not a pepper for the meek, since it has up to 175,000 Scoville heat units [about 40 times hotter than a jalapeno]." Suitable for cooking, drying and pickling.
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