Heirloom Empire

Grow Italy's finest in your garden

On his half-acre lot in the Valley, Winnetka Farms owners Craig Ruggless and Gary Jackemuk are living out an impressive DIY existence, tending to vegetables, fruit, chickens, quail and bees (click to see slideshow).

Ruggless is deeply dedicated to Italian heirlooms–they're just about all he grows. He's been importing seeds for 300 different varieties to the U.S. for nearly five years, a number of which he sprouts in organic soil and sells as seedlings ($4 to $8).

Both the farm and Ruggless' seeds of choice reflect his family's history, exemplified in a photo of his extended family standing around an outdoor oven watching a domed loaf of bread being lifted out of its mouth with a long peel.

The aesthetic is pure provincial Italian, but the scene isn't from some Tuscan village. Rather, it's South Los Angeles circa 1933, around 67th and San Pedro, where Ruggless' Italian immigrant forebears lived quite similarly, albeit with less blogging: gardening, raising rabbits for meat, and more.

Ruggless' Italian rarities are a joy for any gardening or culinary geek: the endangered Fiaschetto tomato that has been the subject of an impressive protection campaign by Slow Food Italy; the delightfully named cucummarazzo, a sweet-fleshed cucumber that mimics its melon cousins; the myriad fiercely regional chicories (click here for a full list).

Winnetka Farms will be open this Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 8331 Keokuk Ave. (enter through gate on Community St.), Winnetka; winnetkafarms.com