By Barbara Kessler
How do gardeners get through the deep, snooze-inducing winter? They salivate over seed catalogs and plat their future plots, preferably over hot chocolate and near a toasty fire. This is a welcome respite from the heavy lifting of spring planting, summer weeding and fall composting. It’s a time to gaze longingly at shiny pictures of peppers and tomatoes, eggplants and squash and dream of new varieties to try when the ground reawakens.
Lately those choices have been multiplying to encompass a revivalist category of vegetables, fruits and herbs known as heirlooms. Gardeners are learning to love heirlooms because they recapture the tang and richness of flavors that have gone missing from the grocery produce department and even from chain store seed racks.
By planting time-tested heirlooms, home gardeners can grow gourmet, hard-to-find foods and also connect with their past.
GRN: What is an heirloom. How is it defined?
Agrella: There’s no strict definition as it’s not a regulated term. However, consensus seems to be building that an heirloom variety is an open-pollinated variety that has been in existence for at least 50 years. Often they have been preserved within a single family (“family held” heirlooms), sometimes they are products of university or commercial breeding (usually from before 1960, which is about when hybrids began to overtake open-pollinated breeding), and sometimes they are “landraces” or other varieties originating from ethnic growers in some other country.
GRN: Heirlooms seem to come from all over, is that OK, or should I try to stick with those that come from the US, if I’m planting here? (Or should I go with that Italian tomato, because who knows tomatoes better?)
Agrella: Sticking to heirlooms that come from climates similar to your own is wise but there are a lot of different growing regions in this country, not all of which are alike! So, for example, if you’re in the Southeast, varieties that come from there are an easy, safe choice. However, other parts of the world have climates similar to summer climates in the US, so don’t rule them out. For example, varieties from Thailand or Central America often do well in our Southeast. Again, varieties from Eastern Europe/former USSR are likely to thrive in the continental interior and the northern tier of states. And yes, Mediterranean varieties are almost assured of success in California. However, plants can be surprisingly adaptable, so this rule of thumb, while safe, can be somewhat limiting. Growers should try something different occasionally, because sometimes these varieties will surprise you and be adaptable to wildly different conditions than those under which they developed.
GRN: Are heirlooms organic, or virtually so? Are they best grown with organic methods? Or does it matter? What’s the scoop with that?
Agrella: Heirlooms aren’t organic unless they have been grown organically. And hybrids (non-open pollinated) can be grown organically as well. But most heirlooms did develop under organic conditions so it follows that most of them are going to be comfortable grown in organic gardens.
GRN: Why do I want to grow heirloom vegetables? What are the attributes that I’m getting when I do that?
Agrella: Heirlooms have been selected over generations for productivity, flavor, yield, earliness and hardiness, relevant to the conditions under which they’ve been grown. Conversely, much modern breeding work has been funded by commercial agriculture, so these types are often strong in traits that matter to large-scale production–uniformity, ripening all at once, or good shipping ability. Notice that taste isn’t on the list? Many heirloom types have a better taste than many hybrid types, and taste is one main reason to try heirlooms! Another is nutrition, as many times heirloom types are believed to contain a better package of nutrients, than many of the hybrids. Finally, many gardeners like the sense of connectedness when they grow heirlooms–maybe they’re growing a traditional type of their region, or maybe an ethnic type originally developed by their ancestors.
GRN: What advice do you have for novice gardeners on getting started with heirlooms, are there certain veggies or herbs that you recommend (species not necessarily varieties, or either)?
Agrella: We advise everyone to try them–we’re convinced that they’re better for the reasons cited above, in most situations! With the exception of a lack of documented disease tolerance, they aren’t any different to grow than modern types, so long as appropriate selections are made. However, if gardeners already have a favorite modern type that they grow, they should continue growing while they experiment with heirlooms, in case their heirloom choices don’t quite pan out. (There’s no one-size-fits-all, and gardeners should expect some trial and error, until they determine for themselves which heirloom types they love!) Gardeners should make careful choices that are likely to thrive in their region, and we’re always happy to help with that.
GRN: Is it hard to seed save? For me, and at your end. What are the most challenging aspects of trying to save or recover heirloom vegetables? How do you do that? How can a regular gardener participate in this end of the heirloom “movement”?
Agrella: Growing them is a start. Seed saving isn’t really hard on crops that are well suited to the environment in which they’re growing (after all the plants “want” to set seed; often just leaving them alone is sufficient!), but it does take some knowledge or skill to do it well. Some types that are easy to start with might be beans, tomatoes, and lettuce. Home gardeners can participate by patronizing heirloom companies like ours, of course, and by saving seed, obviously. But they can also participate by supporting farmers at farmers’ markets, by favoring heirloom and organic products at the grocery store, and by making informed choices when they vote. If they are lucky enough to have family-held varieties within their own family, they should try to share them with other growers, to avoid them being lost.
A note: We sought out the expertise of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in Mansfield, MO, because the company is owned and operated by ardent heirloom advocates, company founders Jere and Emilee Gettle.
In addition to their online operation, the company maintains a seed store and shop called Our Village in the Missouri Ozarks and two newer locations, the Petaluma Seed Bank in Petaluma, CA, and the resurrected, venerable Comstock, Ferre & Co. brand in Connecticut. The Gettle’s energy and devotion to collecting and promoting heirloom, GMO-free seeds stands out and they’ve been featured in several stories about this move toward greater garden biodiversity.
But, you may know other sources of heirlooms in your own community, or even in your family. Seed sharing is fast becoming a companion pursuit to dabbling in heirlooms. You can find expertise in many quarters. Talk to the growers at your local farmers market or the master gardener in your neighborhood. It’s all about trying different varieties that grow well or provide the taste difference you’re seeking. Get creative, the plant kingdom awaits.
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