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By Mara Welton, Slow Food USA Programs Director
John Forti, Maine-based ethnobotanist and former Slow Food chapter leader has explored the human connection to food through the study of botanical history, storytelling and historical garden curation. He has done this in a number of contexts: as the Director of Horticulture at Plimoth Plantation Museum, as Curator of Historical Landscapes at Strawbery Banke Museum, Director of Horticulture for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and in his current position as Executive Director of Bedrock Gardens in Lee, NH. John is known as the “The Heirloom Gardener” and is the author of a book by the same name. He currently serves on the Slow Food Ark of Taste Committee for the Northeast and is a Slow Food Regional Councilor for the Northeast. Slow Food USA Director of Programs Mara Welton asked John some questions about Plant a Seed green sea kale.

1. Sea kale is a newly boarded Ark of Taste food that is included in this year’s Plant a Seed kit featuring the biodiverse family of greens. As an ethnobotanist, can you share any fun facts about its history?

In England and Europe, it was valued for early season human forage and animal fodder.  Like many perennial edibles, it was valued as a part of early spring diet that provided necessary nourishment before annual spring greens/vegetables were ready to harvest.  It was introduced to the US in 1808 via Thomas Jefferson’s experimental gardens at Monticello, and he considered Sea Kale to be one of his favorite vegetables.  

2. In this time of climate uncertainty, having biodiverse sources of nutrition can be beneficial. Where does sea kale fit into this story?


Sea kale can grow well in either hot or cold climates, but in the northeast where I live, it seems to be a better edible and ornamental addition to a garden than an economic plant/vegetable. As with all cruciferous vegetables, the consumption of sea kale is scientifically proven to prevent colon cancer. 

3. If we were able to successfully germinate our sea kale this year, how can we keep our plants happy and producing for a long time? 

Sea kale likes well drained soil, and I find that mine is most happy when I compost around it with seaweed.   I also find good effect planting other perennial herbs around it, as sea kale does not like to have its roots disturbed.

4. Do you grow sea kale in your gardens (or have you grown it) and what is your favorite way to eat it?

I grow sea kale at Bedrock Gardens in USDA Zone 5 in Lee, New Hampshire.  I like nibbling on the seed pods, adding flowers to salads, and tossing tender spring leaves into soups, stir fries and side-dishes.  I should add that like other kale, I like it best when massaged with lemon and sea salt to help make it more digestible and flavorful (think ceviche).

5. In 2021 you published your book, The Heirloom Gardener: Traditional Plants and Skills for the Modern World. What inspired you to write this book and what do you hope readers will glean from this book that they can use in their daily lives?

Slow Food has helped to inspire a connection between the land, local economies, and a quality of life.  As a garden historian watching humanity struggling to navigate through trying times, I wanted to write about the hope I see in the emerging arts and crafts movement.  So I write and speak about gardening as homestead craft revival that can empower each of us to make a difference one back yard, and one community at a time. 

6. What’s next for you, The Heirloom Gardener?

I’m still on a lecture tour with this book (and my Facebook page by the same name) but my publisher has recently approached me about my next book, and we are all excited to get started on another meaningful project.
Stay in touch with John Forti on his Facebook Page The Heirloom Gardener