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Grow treasures in your Eagle County garden

Caramie SchnellVail CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado The juicy ripe tomatoes you find at summer farmers markets and in your grandmothers garden dont taste anything like the tasteless, pink spheres found in the grocery store this time of year. The key word here is heirloom. An heirloom tomato is to the grocery-store variety what a homemade cupcake is to the pre-packaged Hostess cake that expires in 2010.

Heirlooms are open-pollinated cultivars, meaning they produce plants like the parents from seed. They were commonly grown during earlier periods in human history but are not used in large-scale agriculture production. Instead, just a few varieties of crops are grown, which are often chosen because they produce a lot of vegetables, they are drought, frost or pesticide-tolerant and can withstand being shipped across the country and poked and squeezed by passersby. Flavor and nutrition are often secondary concerns.

The old-time varieties offer a glimpse of life in earlier times and are a reservoir of genetic diversity. Traits encoded in their DNA may someday prove critical to feeding the world, said Susan Mackin Dolan, a local master gardener who has been growing organic vegetables for 30 years. Mackin Dolan will teach a class devoted to heirloom and organic plants Saturday in conjunction with the Vail Symposium and the local Slow Food chapter. Everything from tomatoes and lettuce to herbs and root vegetables can be found in heirloom varieties and grow well here in the high country, Mackin Dolan said. This valley was a big lettuce-growing capital in the mid-1900s. All greens grow really well here because of the cool nights, she said.

Carley Schreiber, merchandise coordinator at the Wildflower Farm in Edwards, says they get a handful of people who come in specifically asking for heirloom plants. Tomatoes is the big area where people get particular about (heirlooms), Schreiber said. Theres a laundry list of things Mackin Dolan likes about heirloom vegetables great taste and beauty as well as cultural history behind heirloom vegetables, which are often grown from seeds that have a history that dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years.Along with the organic food movement, the popularity of heirloom vegetables has steadily increased over the past few years. A lot of top chefs and restaurants are looking for the best quality, organic, tastiest foods available, Mackin Dolan said. Jenna Johansen, local chef-owner of Dish restaurant in Edwards, is one of those chefs. Johansen plans to use even more heirloom vegetables in her dishes this spring and summer than usual, she said.The more it becomes a mainstream thing and more people are exposed, the more customers will see the difference between heirloom vegetables and mass-produced, mega-agricultural products. … Foods that are produced from heirloom seeds are fuller-flavored and richer, so they can be prepared much more simply, she said.Its for that reason that Johansen will likely make a simple salad out of the first heirloom tomato her favorite fruit she gets a hold of. Juicy hunks of tomato, shaved red onions, a drizzle of balsamic reduction, a little sea salt and some extra virgin olive oil will let the perfect simplicity of the tomato shine. That to me is the essence of how the universe plans for us to be eating, she said. But before the veggies get into the kitchen, they have to be grown. Home gardeners looking to incorporate heirloom varieties into their own vegetable beds should head to Wildflower Farm for seeds and advice or take Mackin Dolans class on Saturday.


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