Heirloom plants are varieties that have been handed down over many years and sometimes centuries, through farmers and gardeners. World wide, non-heirloom seed producers and breeders have been consolidating, giving way to fewer varieties.
Large corporate farms, the largest users of seed, want picture perfect fruits and vegetables that ship well. Hybrids have been touted to be more disease resistant but there are many old varieties that out-perform. Heirloom vegetables have genetic diversity that show resistance to pests and diseases, earlier maturity and most importantly, better taste!
Many great non-profit organizations around the world save and share hard- to-find heirloom vegetable, herb, and flower seeds and make them available to farmers and gardeners such as Seed Savers Exchange. There are also many seed companies offering heirloom seeds such as Seeds of Change, Select Seeds, Territorial Seed, and Pine Tree, with many being organic as well.
Potatoes used to be just potatoes until heirloom varieties were rediscovered by chefs and home cooks alike. The varieties are endless with different uses and tastes. Many are blight resistant, and most have superb culinary qualities.
Heirloom tomatoes come in all colors, sizes, and shapes. They’re full of overwhelming flavors that beat out tasteless mass produced tomatoes. They were almost lost but for a few individuals all over the world. These varieties are sought after by the world’s great chefs. Heirloom vegetables were bred before artificial fertilizers, grow great in composted soils, and are ideal for organic gardeners. Since it’s hard to find plants, buy the seeds. Tomatoes and peppers are among the easiest grown from seed and there are hundreds to chose from. In the South, heat and humidity can be a disease causing problem, but I have found that disease attacks the hybrids at the same rate. Mulching, crop rotation, organic fungicides and destroying (not composting) vines at the end of the year help avoid problems. Northern gardeners have a lot less problems.
My personal favorite heirloom tomatoes include Red Brandywine (1885), an Amish variety considered by many to have the best flavor; Caspian Pink, huge size and flavor from Russia; Georgia Steak, sweet and complex is yellow with red stripes; Aunt Ruby’s German Green, intense flavor in a brilliant green beefsteak; Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, has an Amish background and great flavor. Legend has it that when plants sold for a dollar during the depression, the mechanic paid the mortgage off by selling this variety. San Marzano, a Sicilian variety, is known world wide for sauce and canning.
There are heirloom beans, peppers, corn, pumpkins, lettuce, melons, grains, herbs and more. There were once 500 varieties of apples of which only 200 are left. Some are now being offered in nurseries and catalogs. What a thrill to be able to grow Thomas Jefferson’s favorite from the 1800’s, the Spitzenberg!
The choices and flavors are endless in heirloom vegetables. The only obstacle is running out of space!
Guest Author, Electa Keil