Marie Iannotti Interview

19/07/2012 10:54
14/06/2012 21:25

It's June and for many of us our vegetable gardens have rounded first base and are heading for second.

We have had some insect damage and some disease is starting to show itself but for the most part,things are going strong.

Did you plant some heirloom vegetables this year?In the following interview,Marie Iannotti,tells you why you should.

Marie Iannotti has been gardening for decades, from New York to California. She has grown thousands of varieties of plants in her own gardens and killed a good many of them along the way. She writes from experience and keeps her skills honed by working with new homeowners as a gardening coach, identifying plants and problems and helping them become confident gardeners.

Marie is the former owner of Yore Vegetables, an heirloom seedling nursery. She is a longtime master gardener and a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Horticulture Educator, Master Gardener program coordinator, and a member of the Garden Writer's Association and The Garden Conservancy.

Marie's garden writing has been featured in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and she has been interviewed for Martha Stewart Radio, National Public Radio, and numerous articles. She is the former editor of The Mid-Hudson Gardener's Guide and writes about her own garden at Practically Gardening.Marie is the guide to Gardening and in part 1 of this interview we are talking to Marie about her book;The Beginner's Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables-The 100 Easiest to Grow,Tastiest Vegetables for Your Garden.

Why a book now?As it says in your bio,you have been gardening and teaching gardening for several decades so why a book now and why heirlooms as the subject of your book when as a master gardener you could have written a book about gardening in general?

The idea actually came from a wonderful book editor, Barbara Doyen, who knew I once had a small heirloom seedling business and a big love of heirloom vegetables. Gardeners, myself included, can get so caught up in the details of gardening that we forget to enjoy what we’re doing. So rather than write a book about the how-tos and what-ifs, I wanted to write about the enjoyment of vegetable gardening, from the tending to the eating. I think the resurgence of interest in vegetable gardening and cooking in general gave the book a bit of serendipity. Vegetable gardening has always been my first love. What’s not to like about a hobby you can eat?

What is an heirloom vegetable?

The generally accepted definition is that an heirloom has to be open pollinated (OP), at least 50 years old and have been handed down through generations with a story attached to it. That definition is becoming muddled as heirloom seed companies include more and more OP varieties that don’t necessarily adhere to the other 2 requirements. Not many people thought to keep a history of where their seeds came from, anyway. For me, any plant that someone thinks enough of to save seed for replanting and sharing, is a candidate for being called an heirloom.

I can't tell you how many times I have heard gardeners say that they would like to grow heirlooms but that they are concerned that heirlooms are far more prone to disease than modern hybrids.Your response?

Hogwash. Most hybrids are bred to be one size fits all, even though a cucumber that loves the dry heat of the southwest might become covered in mildew in the humid northeast. It’s true that many hybrids were bred to have disease resistance, but that doesn’t mean they won’t succumb. When early blight blew through my area, it didn’t matter what type of tomatoes you had planted. They all died within days. Besides, I’d rather have a delicious tomato with a few spots than a bland, picture perfect fruit. I can get those at the grocery store.
The same common sense applies to heirlooms as to any plant you grow: start with healthy soil, be vigilant about scouting for problems early and choose varieties suited to your area. And if you save seeds from your healthiest plants to grow again, each year they’ll become a little more acclimated to your special growing conditions. There’s no need to sacrifice quality.
You say that "The same common sense applies to heirlooms as any plant you grow" but I have become convinced that some folks are intimidated by the term "heirloom" in the same way that they may be nervous being around their Grandmothers heirloom china.
Do heirloom vegetables require special growing considerations?For example,can one grow an heirloom tomato the same way they would grow any other tomato?

I don’t give them any special care. All tomatoes need lots of sun, water and nutrients and the occasional fungicide. If there’s any special care needed it’s a gentler touch, since heirloom varieties don’t have the thick skins commercial varieties need to ship well.
I think the major problem is with the word ‘Heirloom’. I’ve never liked it. It sounds like you’re planting dusty, old seeds that will grow into fragile, musty vegetables that only a connoisseur could love. I don’t know what the original marketing idea was, but it turns people off as often as it intrigues them. Some people think they’re fussy, some think it’s a gimmick, some think it’s just another save the world hysteria and others find it pretentious. We need to think up another term. So far all I’ve come up with is “the good stuff”, because to a vegetable lover like me, having that much variety is thrilling.
The cover of your book features various varieties of beans.Is it safe to say that beans are among your favourite vegetables and if so why?I mean,we are talking about the cover of your book which is the first thing seen by potential readers so why beans?
I didn’t actually get to pick the cover photo, but I did grow the beans and take the photo, so yes, I’d have to admit that they are one of my favorite vegetables. What’s not to love about beans? They’re so versatile. You can eat them fresh, you can shell them, you can dry them to cook later. And there’s a huge variety. With green beans alone, there is everything from the super-skinny French matchstick beans to the broad, flat, meaty ‘Roma’ beans. Fresh green beans don’t even need to be cooked to be delicious. Even a small garden can produce a nice sized yield of green beans. But then there’s kidney beans, soy beans, wax beans, fava beans, yard-long beans...

I love how you help your readers decide on which of your 100 heirloom vegetables may be best for them by categorizing them in what you call 'Marie's Top Picks".The categories include;Classic,Beautiful,Sweet,Spicy,Aromatic etc.
Marie,why is it that so many think that the only vegetables available are the few they see in the grocery store?Why is it that so many are not aware of all the vegetables out there such as the wonderful ones you feature in your book?

That is an excellent question. I would guess it’s because we’ve gotten away from vegetable gardening in the past few decades and commercial farming isn’t nimble enough to grow and ship a large variety of products, so they focus on the staples. Kids have to have their carrots and most people can’t tell the difference between a rutabaga and a turnip – and they don’t want either. They want a russet potato.
The uncertain economy and health scares associated with tainted vegetables seem to have rekindled the idea of home vegetable gardens. If folks stick with it, they’ll start to appreciate how much more flavor, crispness, juiciness, sweetness... fresh picked vegetable have and I hope they’ll start experimenting and searching out new varieties to try. The catalogs and even the seed racks in garden centers offer a pretty wide selection. When you look at the face of someone trying celeriac or golden beets for the first time, you can see they’re ripe for more.
But vegetable gardening takes a commitment and I know a lot of people who give it a try and give up by the end of summer. My hopes are pinned on the small farmers and farmers markets. They cater to the people who love the quality of fresh-picked but, for whatever reason, don’t want to grow their own. Their stalls are so visually alluring, people are tempted to buy things they have no idea how to prepare – yet. That’s how I got hooked on amaranth greens.
In my area, the small farmers are having enough success to attract the attention of the grocery chains and we’re starting to see more and more unusual, local produce in the aisles. I hope that continues, not just for the variety, but also the seasonality. The local growers can grow hardy greens, winter radishes and root crops well into winter, which is a nice treat when you’re used to seeing the shelves fill up with cardboard tomatoes from who knows where. We need to support them. Once of the best ways to get the word out is to cook some of these things when you have friends over for dinner. If they like it, they’ll seek it out.

Next I wanted to focus on some specific vegetables in your book.
I received the promotional package of rat's tail radish seeds(wonderful name)and I'm thrilled to say that they are doing great.I've noticed that their leaves are much larger than traditional radish and I'm not quite sure what to expect at this point.You say in your book that they can reach heights of 2-5ft and require support.They don't have tendrils of course,like legumes,so do they become a bush?Perhaps a tomato cage over each one would be good?
For those who don't know,rat's tail radish are grown for their edible seed pods rather than their roots.I can't wait to try them:)
No, they don’t really bush out and they don’t cling to anything. They also don’t have a very sturdy stem and they’ll just fall over in a pile, without something to hold them up. I put a short piece of fencing in front of mine and they kind of lean on it. But a tomato cage would work fine, too. Anything that would hold them up as they flop would work.
(Note from Scotty;my rat tails are going strong indeed.Two feet tall with flower stalks topped with mauve blossoms.Bring on the seed pods!:)

The Brandywine tomato is probably the most well known heirloom.You mention it in your book but I noticed that you did not profile it.Perhaps because it has been done to death:)Do you agree that the Brandywine is the best tasting heirloom tomato or do you have another favourite?Maybe 'Cherokee Purple' that you say and to quote;"'Brandywine' gets all the press,but most tomato gardeners I know are rhapsodic about 'Cherokee Purple'.
Be careful Marie;you may start a tomato war!

Well the last thing I want is to have tomatoes thrown at me when I go out to give a talk, but I do prefer the purple tomatoes. ‘Cherokee Purple’ is at the top of the list. I also love ‘Pruden’s Purple’. The purple tomatoes seem to have a nice balance of sweet/tart, which just happens to be my preference. They also grow very well in most areas. Which is not to say I would turn my nose up to a ‘Brandywine’. Folks looking for a juicy, sweet beefsteak won’t be disappointed by ‘Brandywine’, which I also grow.
I actually like different varieties for different purposes. I love ‘Yellow Pear’ and ‘Green Grape’, for snacking and ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ is a new favorite. I like ‘Anna Russian’, ‘Black Krim’ and the purples in salads, ‘Brandywine’ I would choose as a slicer.I’m an equal opportunity tomato eater.
I love to grow some heirlooms not just for their flavour but also for their ornamental appeal.You highlight some in your book under the sub categories 'Beautiful' and 'Colourful'.Hot peppers/chili's are a popular ornamental and the 'Bulgarian Carrot', you profile, certainly looks very attractive.What are some of your other favourite heirloom vegetables that are grown for ornamental appeal?
I don’t do a lot of edible landscaping. I can’t grow too many plants outside of my fortressed vegetable garden because I have assorted wildlife that think it’s their yard, too. But I have good luck with okra. It’s in the same family as hibiscus and the flowers are stunning.
For sheer beauty, you can’t beat the cooking greens, although my groundhog prefers to think of them as a snack. He does avoid the variegated leaves of amaranth, which are as pretty as any coleus. We grow amaranths in the flower garden all the time, but pretty much the whole plant is edible. It’s one of the most commonly grown grains in the world, but I love it for the leaves, which I cook lightly as a side dish. I dot kale throughout my vegetable garden. The crinkled, blue-green and purple leaves make even a tired tomato plant look fresh. And ‘Bull’s Blood’ beet’s red tops glow in the sunlight.
I also like to grow eggplants in containers, partly because the fruits are so lovely and colorful. I could go on, but that’s a good start.
It may take awhile for even an avid vegetable gardener such as me to try growing all 100 heirlooms in your book so I'll wrap things up for now by asking a very tough question;out of your 100 heirloom suggestions,which ones do you consider the absolute must tries?
I had a hard enough time limiting myself to 100, but if I had to choose 3 for starters I’d go with: ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato, so you’ll know that not all tomatoes taste the same, and then ‘Rampicante Tromboncino’ zucchini and Spring Raab broccoli, for a taste of the variety you’ll never find in the grocery store. That should do the trick and have you coming back for more.
Stay tuned for part 2
Scott Harris