An Interview with John Forti, the Heirloom Gardener

by Crystal Sands

On June 22, The Heirloom Gardener, the highly-anticipated new book from John Forti will be released to the public. To me and all of my Farmer-ish friends, this book is a really big deal, and as it turns out, we are not alone in our excitement. Although the book has yet to be released, the first printing sold out through pre-orders! But do not fear, as a second and third printing are already coming, so you can get your hands on this beautiful book.

Although I have not seen the book in print, I was able to access a digital review copy prior to my interview with John, and this book is gorgeous. It is arranged as a series of essays in alphabetical order, and within each entry, John provides instruction, history, and lore about gardening and the natural world. With entries on topics like apple cart, edible flowers, tea, and Thanksgiving grace, this book is truly a treasure that I cannot wait to hold in my hands.

I had the honor of interviewing the Heirloom Gardener himself, John Forti, for Farmer-ish, and though I had set out to learn about the book, John’s process, and his inspiration for writing, I ended up coming away with much more—a hopefulness that the work John Forti is doing can help heal us as a culture and help us find our common ground.

Here, I share a selection from that interview.

On the Book

Crystal Sands: Can you tell me about how this book came about?

John Forti: The publisher asked me to write a book on garden history, and I said well, I would love to do that and maybe someday let’s circle back to that, but I think the world needs a book that makes history accessible and gives us tools to use right now.

So I put forward a proposal and they said “okay, try that.” The essays and organization came about because I didn’t really know at first what my publisher wanted, but I thought the essays–some in depth, some shorter, some on gardening, some on plants, some political—would not overwhelm people…I hope.

CS: I think the layout is magnificent. I think about the way I read–and I love to read. I read every chance I get. But I work, I’m a mom, I am helping with our farm, and I read at night. All I get are little bits of time before I am falling asleep, so I think the alphabetical essay format is perfect. I think this organization is really going to appeal to the way people live their lives. We’re all so busy. Sometimes, people who love to read just have to kind of steal the time to do it.

JF: Yeah, I tried to keep it in chunks, so you could pick it up and put it down and pick it up and put it down. Also, when I read in bed at night, I have to hold books up over my head to be able to see them. This book is a hard cover, but it’s small enough that I can hold it up over my head and it feels great to hold. The paper is nice, and the publisher did a great job with Mary Azarian’s woodcut art.

Honestly, I felt so privileged to actually hold it in my hands for the first time and think, I love this book.

On Why This Book Is Important

JF: One of the titles I was considering for this book was Common Ground, and I think we really need to find common ground in this nation right now. This is a subject that people “get” whether they are in Maine or California or Tennessee, it doesn’t matter, and there aren’t a lot of other subjects that can bring people to that common ground like this one. That’s one of the things I love about this book. It’s not just about gardening; it’s about rebuilding systems that we can all participate in.

And we know it dovetails with sustainability. To me, that’s where generations coming really get reshaping systems because doing so is attainable to them. If you are producing it or supporting it, you’re part of it. If you’re growing it, you’re caring about the air quality, the soil quality, the water quality, the life of your hens [I told him about my chickens], the lives of the people eating the eggs from your hens. It’s all really participatory in a way that I just love.

On Green Beans and Sturdiness in the Garden

CS: There is something that can be absolutely life changing about this. For me, it was green beans. They’re so sturdy and easy, and I was so nervous growing for the first time because I had not grown up learning how to do any of this. My great grandmother was a homesteader. She had a garden and chickens and made the jam and sewed her own clothes, but when she died, these skills were lost in our family. So, as an adult, I had to learn everything. Thankfully, my husband can grow anything. He knows how to listen to plants, but I was so nervous about trying to grow things. I couldn’t even keep a house plant alive.

I did not have any kind of confidence. And then there were these green beans. And they just, pretty much, on their own, grew and gave me all this food. And I thought, oh, this is a gift.

JF: I love how you said they are sturdy. To me, if it isn’t sturdy, it doesn’t have a place in the garden. When we think of our cultural and physical needs, a bean—it’s fiber, it’s protein, it’s so many things. And it has a beautiful flower. And it has a shady vine. To me, those are ways I want everyone to know about gardening. Stick a seed in the ground. It’s that simple. You don’t have to buy it pre-grown in a pot. It’s as simple as a seed.

And, to me, that should be the poster child for gardening. That sturdiness is something more people need to learn, that they can really be good at this stuff. It doesn’t have to be dainty.

On John’s Inspiration

CS: What about you and your motivation to get into gardening and your interest in nature and sustainability?

JF: It came in a lot of different layers like everybody. I saw early examples around me. My grandparents, certainly. For them, it was an urban experience. They were just outside the city of Boston, and my grandfather (until he was 90), and he would climb up and down the trellis from their triple-decker top floor. He had beans growing all the way to the top.

He would go down right among the beans and work in his garden. It yielded so much of their food. And they canned and put up. The dried tomatoes on old window screens. There was nothing dainty about it. They just knew how to do it.

And if he ate a tomato he liked, he just smeared it on the side of a brown paper bag and wrote “best tomato” or “earliest tomato” whatever it might be. And that was certainly an influence.

Watch below for more stories about John’s influences and find out what he says about the importance of mentoring.

On Hopes and History

CS: What do you hope for your book? What do you hope people will take away from it?

JF: Partly, I just have to say that I’m thrilled that it’s having a good birthing process because it’s a lot of work and probably the worst money I’ll ever make because of the amount of time that goes into writing a book, but when something is a labor of love, it’s really nice if it’s well received. So I am so deeply grateful that it’s being well received, and crazily enough, that’s without most people even having read it.

I also feel that because of a lifetime of doing interdisciplinary work and being a public educator, I’m aware that our country is pretty messed up. The world is pretty messed up right now, but I’m not a pessimist. When we confront times like these, we look at how we outgrow the stuff that doesn’t work and grow into the things that do. And, for me, heirlooms are a perfect analogy for that because you’re preserving something from the past and adapting it for the future because it has deep roots; it has everything we need. It’s a common cultural inheritance.

If I can shepherd these messages out into the world and help explain why stewardship and community building are important, why this is a delicious evolution and not a battle of current politics, then that’s a good thing. It is a way to common ground, and I hope the world will use me teach these ideas right now.

There’s an expression: “The world doesn’t need more successful people; it needs healers and artists and that kind of thing.” To me, there’s success in that that’s immeasurable. And right now, gardens are one of the ways that healing is happening.

It’s also an environmental movement. People who don’t think environmentalism is politically aligned with them can hear and see for themselves.

It’s also a nutrition movement. It’s a youth movement. But it’s all delicious. It’s not something you have to force on people because once you’ve grown a sun-ripened tomato, you don’t want to go back to the cellophane wrapped things in a supermarket.

And it’s not that you have to take on the whole of agribusiness; you just do your own little part. These are outgrowths that I hope this book gives legs to.

CS: This makes me so hopeful. I am so thankful for this conversation, not just for the journal but for me personally. I needed this hope.

JF: Right. This is something we have to tell ourselves. These have been harsh and depressing times, living through a pandemic, and the world is in a lot of turmoil. But I also believe these are the times to recognize the forward movement.

It’s time to remember what our grandparents taught us and take it to a new generation.

The book is also a history book in some ways. We are at a crossroads right now where people do not want to look at our history or it’s not easy to look at our history, but when we look at the cultural contributions that everybody has made, through their plants, through their gardens, through culinary history, we learn history. I’ve always thought it’s a misrepresentation of history to look at battles and conquerors because history is about how we move through daily life in place, and those are very valuable place-based histories. Every heirloom seed is a part of that.

We have lost over 90 percent of the genetic diversity among the food crops that feed the world over the last 100 years. In our past, every region cultivated those stories through plants. And that’s part of a reclamation project that’s just really fun right now.

Anyway, you asked what I hoped the book will do, and I hope it will make history and plants and participation and positive change possible.

On My Favorite Quote from John

JF: I always feel privileged to become this old and still see the wonder in life. To me, that’s a part of being a gardener…I am constantly in wonder and awe of what I see in the natural world.

The Heirloom Gardener ships June 22, 2021. You can get it online here at where a portion of the profits will go to your local bookstore, or you can just contact your local bookstore. This book is a work of art and a work of hope. I know Farmer-ish readers will treasure it.