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Timeless Treasures

Heirloom vegetables are easy to grow, delicious to eat, and they're making a comeback in farmhouse gardens. Learn all about them and discover six of our favorite heirlooms.

Written by Lynn Coulter.

 

Timeless Treasures

Not all heirlooms are pocket watches or antique desks. Old vegetable varieties count as heirlooms, too, when their seeds are handed down from one generation of gardeners to another, or when the stories behind them connect us to the past.

Today, an increasing number of gardeners are growing heirloom tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, peppers and other old-timey produce. Lee Buttala of Seed Savers Exchange believes heirloom plants are trending because people want to be more self-reliant and know where their foods come from.

Heirlooms also help keep our food crops diverse, and saving seeds is economical, but it's more than that. "We're taking [seeds] from the past, using them in the present, and storing them into the future." Buttala says. "We're looking for things that make us feel like we're doing something restorative and good."

Matthew Hoffman, co-owner of The Living Seed Company, notes that varieties that have been around for at least 50 years are usually considered heirlooms, and they're open pollinated. That means you can save their seeds, and they'll grow true-to-type [or produce plants that look like the parent].

In addition to healthier plants, growing heirloom vegetables can be fun, especially when discovering their fascinating stories. "Some feel like fables," Buttala says. "Like the story about a farmer's wife who dressed a goose for dinner and found beans in its craw. The family grew them out, and now they're known as ‘Mostoller Wild Goose' beans."

Growing heirlooms isn't hard, says Kathy McFarland of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. "They don't need anything that hybrids don't. The most important thing is to look at your [USDA plant hardiness] zone and pick a variety that grows well there."

Buttala agrees: "Some people say hybrids are more vigorous, but if there's a problem, maybe you need a different variety. Look over the fence and see what your neighbor's growing successfully."

Chris Smith of Sow True Seed suggests, "Be prepared to celebrate differences and nuances in heirloom varieties. Some gnarly, ugly tomatoes end up being the best tasting!"

Heirloom veggies are delicious and nutritious, and as Buttala says, "Seeds and food bring everyone to a common table." Saving your seeds, Hoffman adds, is "a beautiful way to connect more deeply to your garden. Maybe you'll even discover one of your own heirlooms. You never know what kind of treasure you might find."

Seeds image photographed by Kristen Early; courtesy of Johnny's Selected Seeds.

6 Heirloom Vegetables to Try in Your Garden

• Cherokee Purple, a purplish-pink heirloom tomato from the Cherokee Indians. "It's juicy and delicious, mainly for eating fresh, but you can can it," says Sow True Seed's Chris Smith. He also likes chunky, flavorful "Zapotec Pleated" tomatoes. "I haven't confirmed it, but the seed donor said it's one of the oldest heirloom tomatoes, with a link back to Central American breeding stock."

• Bradford watermelons from the 1850s. "It's an incredible-tasting watermelon thought lost for many years," Smith says. "Along with this reintroduction came many of the cultural uses of watermelons, like watermelon molasses and watermelon rind pickles."

• Dr. Wyche, a yellow tomato. "Dr. Wyche owned a circus, and it's said he grew this luscious tomato on elephant dung," explains Lee Buttala of Seed Savers Exchange.

• Boothby's Blonde, a light-skinned cucumber. Matthew Hoffman of The Living Seed Company recommends it for eating fresh, to enjoy its delicate, refreshing flavor.

• Whipple beans, heirlooms from Oregon. Hoffman soaks the speckled, dark maroon beans overnight and then cooks them until they thicken. He seasons them with sautéed garlic, onions and cumin to make baked beans.

• Andy's Polish Pink, a family heirloom tomato from Poland. Hoffman suggests slicing it for eating fresh or making it into paste. "It's not too juicy, and it tastes like summer."

Tomatoes photograph from Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History.

HEIRLOOM SEED RESOURCES
Annie's Heirloom Seeds, www.anniesheirloomseeds.com
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds.com
W. Atlee Burpee Company, www.burpee.com
Johnny's Selected Seeds, www.johnnyseeds.com
The Living Seed Company, www.livingseedcompany.com
Seed Savers Exchange, www.seedsavers.org
Sow True Seed, https://sowtrueseed.com
Territorial Seed Company, www.territorialseed.com

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History by William Woys Weaver, 2018, Voyageur Press: www.voyageurpress.com

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