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Our favorite heirloom to plant now: it's gorgeous, easy to grow, and even easier to eat. If you go with one crop this year, make it ...

The winner

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Lacinato kale

WHY WE LOVE IT Those crinkly blue-green leaves looked so great in our test garden, we dreaded harvesting them. But this delicious, good-for-you kale is by far the sweetest we've grown.

FAVORITE USES Steamed, in soups, raw in salads, baked as chips.

SEED SOURCE Botanical Interests (botanicalinterests.com)

The runners-up

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'Cherokee Chocolate' tomato

WHY WE LOVE IT A beauty of a beefsteak, it really is as juicy as it looks. Descended from 'Cherokee Purple', it has the same acid/sweet balance with an even deeper, more complex flavor.

FAVORITE USE Eat'em on their own.

SEED SOURCE TomatoFest (tomatofest.com)

'Jarrahdale' pumpkin

WHY WE LOVE IT This Australian heirloom is a space gobbler, but in return you get voluptuous mature fruit that stores well for months.

FAVORITE USES The sweet flesh is delicious roasted and In winter soups.

SEED SOURCE Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com)

Rattlesnake snap beans

WHY WE LOVE IT The striking purple streaks look great on a crudites platter (they fade when cooked). Dried pods also yield fine dry beans.

FAVORITE USES We ate them raw right off the vine; they're also great blanched and sliced into a salad.

SEED SOURCE Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org)

Lemon cucumber

WHY WE LOVE IT Though it looks like a lemon, there's nothing mouth-puckering about this yellow-skinned cucumber. Ours produced all summer, and its flavor stayed mild and sweet.

FAVORITE USE Try it sauteed with a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche.

SEED SOURCE John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds (kitchengardenseeds.com)

'Black Hungarian' pepper

WHY WE LOVE IT All peppers are pretty, but this one is exceptional--purple flowers, purple-veined leaves, and shiny near-black fruit. It's mildly hot, which makes it super versatile.

FAVORITE USE Stir-fries

SEED SOURCE Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org)

Heirlooms: What you need to know

WHAT ARE THEY?

Often defined as varieties at least 60 years old, heirloom vegetables pollinate naturally with little help from humans, and breed true from seed. Most have been preserved for generations.

TREAT THEM RIGHT

All the varieties shown here have the same needs: a sunny, warm location and fertile, well-drained soil Kale is the lone exception--it can handle light shade.

THE GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS Heirlooms are preserved because they have more flavor, better texture, or other advantages, but they lack the disease resistance of hybrids. That makes rotating crops all the more important.

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Title Annotation:The West at its best
Publication:Sunset
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
Words:402
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