The Charm (and Flavors) of Heirloom Vegetables

Heirloom VegetablesPractical and Aesthetic Reasons for Growing America’s Heritage Vegetables

By Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

When it comes to heirloom vegetables, what’s in a name? Plenty when it’s the historic Caseknife Pole Bean, a hardy runner that was the most common bean grown in Civil War-era gardens. Its pods, as you can guess, resemble a knife sheath. Or take the Sutton’s Harbinger Pea, introduced in England by the Sutton Seed Company in 1898 and winner of a Royal Horticultural Merit Award in 1901. One of the earliest peas, then and now, Harbinger lives up to its name by giving the first harvests of the gardening season’s bounty. Then there’s the flavorful Dr. Wyche’s Yellow Tomato, developed by an Oklahoma-based circus owner, Dr. John Wyche, who fertilized his garden with elephant and tiger manure.

The most famous story connected to an heirloom vegetable’s name has to be that of the Mortgage Lifter Tomato. The Mortgage Lifter was developed during the Great Depression by a guy named “Radiator Charlie.” When his West Virginia radiator business suffered because of the economic calamity, Charlie took to his garden and in a few years, through careful cross-pollination, had developed a huge, meaty tomato that bred true. He sold starts of these tomatoes for $1.00. In a few years, he sold enough tomato plants to pay off his largest debt: a $6,000 mortgage.

Stories of heirloom vegetables’ origins are a large part of their charm. But heirlooms, because of their hardiness and disease and pest resistance, are more than just charming. They play a valuable role in organic gardens. As the number of varieties offered by commercial seed companies shrinks, it’s encouraging to know that heirlooms are becoming as popular as they were in Radiator Charlie’s day.

Raising heirloom vegetables has become something of a cause, even a revolution, in the last few years. Reasons for the rising popularity of heirlooms are as diverse as the heirlooms themselves. Not only does the growing of heirloom vegetables and the saving of its seed preserve and enhance biodiversity, it makes available flavorful, condition-specific, disease-resistant vegetables that might otherwise be lost to the harsh economics of seed marketing and the even harsher practices of industrial agriculture. Growing heirlooms is a direct link to our heritage, making a connection to generations of gardeners that came before us and extending that link to our children, grandchildren and beyond.

Reasons To Love

The reasons to grow heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers are practical, aesthetic and patrimonial. The practical reasons are easy to list — local hardiness, disease and pest resistance developed over a number of years, the ability to grow and harvest our own seed. Another practical heirloom advantage is their adaptability to both climate and soil conditions. Unlike hybrids, which are genetically engineered to produce a specific product over a wide-range of growing conditions, often favoring such qualities as size, ship-ability, shelf-life and appearance over flavor, heirlooms have adapted to growing conditions and developed disease resistance over a long period of time. These are traits that organic gardeners rely on. And while disease resistance maybe engineered into a hybrid crop, it’s often at the expense of general quality.

Surprisingly, it’s the aesthetic reasons that motivate most heirloom gardeners I’ve talked to. Certainly heirlooms’ superior taste as compared to commercial mono-cultural vegetables grown by industrial agricultural methods, makes them hugely attractive. Hate the hard, flavorless “plastic” tomatoes you buy in stores? Grow Brandywine, Stupice, the classic Rutgers or any of the dozens of unique tomatoes, from Green Zebra to Thessaloniki and have your palette — and your thinking — changed forever. Often overlooked is the fact that homegrown heirlooms almost always have more nutritional value than their hybrid, commercially-grown counterparts.

Gardeners also love heirlooms for their historic and patrimonial connections. Heirlooms make a direct link to history and the gardening practices of preceding generations. Having the ability to grow and collect your own seed, seed that you will then plant come the next growing season, is as satisfying as harvesting the vegetables for the table. And even if you buy heirloom seed from a reputable source, as the majority of gardeners do, the satisfaction you gain from growing traditional vegetables that our forebears grew gives you a direct connection to gardening heritage.

But the most important reason to grow heirloom vegetables is to preserve biodiversity. Just as the world’s animal populations decline and go extinct, so have many of the food crops that were grown for decades, even centuries, become lost. As commercial practices concentrate their crops into fewer and fewer, mostly engineered and hybrid varieties, our ability to produce food in the face of drought, wide-spread disease and pestilence declines. The number of non-hybrid seed types sold by seed companies decreased from 5,000 in 1981 to 600 in less than 20 years. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 plant species today are threatened with extinction. Those who grow and collect the seed of heirlooms could well save the planet.

Despite the importance of preserving our food supplies genetic diversity, most of us have simple motivations for growing heirlooms. When I’m asked why I love heirloom vegetables, I give a simple answer: because I love good food. The flavors of a perfectly-roasted Detroit Dark Red Beet, the same variety my grandfather grew, cubed and served over thick slices of a Black Krim Tomato, set on a bed of nutty Roquette Arugula, possibly decorated with a scoop of a good artesian goat cheese and drizzled with a fine balsamic vinegar, come together in a way that’s one of life’s great culinary pleasures.

So what makes a garden plant an heirloom? Depends who you ask. Purists argue over just how old an heirloom must be and how it was passed down to qualify for the title of heirloom. But there’s agreement on the basics.

What They’re Not

Heirloom plants are definitely not Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs, those corporate-owned food crops that are engineered with an eye to the bottom line. They are not F1 hybrids, seed resulting from artificial or otherwise controlled pollination of two or more specific plants to achieve certain qualities, such as resistance to a particular disease or the kind of thick skins that make tomatoes easier to ship. Seed harvested from the flowers or fruit of heirloom vegetables will yield plants true to the plant that produced them (hybrids almost always produce seed that yields entirely different offspring or sterile seed or, in some cases, no seed at all). Rather than being cross-bred artificially, heirloom seed result from open-pollination. Seed-producing plants are pollinated naturally by the actions of birds, bugs or wind or other phenomenon, including hand pollination. Simply put, the pollen of one plant is carried to another. Of course there are heirlooms such as potatoes, garlic and onions that grow from existing plants and don’t require pollination. But they are still considered heirloom sources as long as they reproduce true-to-type.

Some non-hybrid plants, for various reasons, are also not considered heirlooms. This may be because there are more recent strains or have been commercially raised in such quantities that they are not considered exceptional.

What They Are

To be considered heirlooms, open-pollinated strains of plants must be of a certain age. This is where the confusion starts. Some purists argue that a strain must be at least 100 years old to be considered an heirloom. Others suggest that a plant must date back to at least 1951 when hybrid plants became widely available.

Other heirloom definitions require that seeds be family specific, that the seed you plant must come from your father and his father before him. The minimum requirement varies from three to four generations.

For many of us, an exact definition isn’t necessary. We will use heirloom seed we obtain from seed companies, from neighbors or local growers met at the farmers market. We don’t exclusively value patrimonial connections, either because they’re not as critical to us as is successfully growing delicious vegetables, or because our families have no history of seed collection. If we do begin saving seeds, we will be the first members of our families to do so. If there is a tradition of seed collection in your family, you’re left with a responsibility. Continuing a family tradition is every bit as important as beginning one. Even though my grandfather didn’t pass down garden seed to me, he did pass on a tradition of sustainable gardening. The connection is real. Every time I pull a beet from the ground, I remember joining him among the rows, how on his knees he was no taller than I was; how I held the beets he gathered by the stems, how he lifted them from the soil.

Who Are the Heirs?

A good way to understand the value of heirloom plants is to look at who’s into heirloom gardening. Gourmet chefs and foodies of all sorts are into heirloom vegetables for their unique, stand-out flavors especially when compared to commercial vegetables. Often, gardeners who raise heirlooms do so organically, another plus for chefs both amateur and professional, seeking the best-tasting, top quality ingredients.

Devoted gardeners are into heirlooms because of the resistance to disease and adaptation to their specific growing region. Hobbyists love the challenge of raising and collecting their own seed. Sustainability champions are into heirlooms because once they’ve attained a specific seed, they can grow a constant supply in their own gardens year after year without having to buy another seed. Survivalists are into heirlooms for that same reason.

Biodiversity activists and environmentalists are into heirlooms to protect the unique vegetables that might otherwise be lost as commercial growers and seed companies cut their production. Historians are into heirlooms because they can recreate famous gardens, say those at Monticello during Thomas Jefferson’s life as closely as available seed will allow. Families and those into ancestry studies are into heirlooms because they can grow the same vegetables as they remember their grandparents growing. In many cases, they are planting the exact seed that their grandparents and great-grandparents planted, passed down from generation to generation. The seed they grow will in turn be passed to their grandchildren. This symbol of the seed being passed is powerful and extends to the ancients. It permeates our mythologies and religious texts. It lends importance to our endeavors and meaning to our existence.

But heirloom vegetables are most valuable to the organic gardener. Because of the tolerance they’ve developed to local conditions, because of their resistance to disease and insects, they allow organic gardeners to forego the kinds and amounts of pesticides that are needed to support modern hybrid plants.

Considerations

Not all heirlooms will have the wonderful flavor or hardiness when grown in regions outside their area of origin. On the other hand, some heirlooms do universally well in a wide variety of growing conditions. Get advice from your local gardening community or extension agent as to which heirlooms are best suited for your region.

Seed saving can be as easy as straining tomato juice or as difficult as over-wintering a cabbage and then transplanting it in an isolated spot. Find tips on saving seed from specific vegetables here. Seed saving can also be a lot of work. You don’t have to do it to be part of the heirloom community. Buying seed from a reputable dealer allows you to experiment and discover which heirlooms work best in your garden and on your dinner table. Begin saving seed from just one or two of your favorite vegetables. Saving seed from beans, peas, peppers and tomatoes is easiest.

Get your children involved in gardening and teach them the value of heirlooms. Not only is gardening the perfect family activity, teaching cooperation and responsibility, it’s a great way to learn the principles of science, specifically biology, chemistry and nutrition. Seed saving takes this learning to a new level. The stories behind heirloom vegetable seeds adds historic and literate context. Keep a detailed gardening journal and have your children contribute. Family traditions are best established when children are young and there’s no more meaningful American family tradition than gardening. And you get to eat the end product.

Saving Grace

Still not convinced of the romance and magic of heirloom seeds? See if the last paragraph from the introduction to Lynn Coulter’s valuable book Gardening With Heirloom Seeds (University of North Carolina Press) moves you:

Heirloom seeds aren’t just about gardening. Throughout the centuries they have been intricately linked with medicine, love, romance, exploration, discovery, and poisons. They have been part of history, science, cooking, literature, fairy tales, genetics, and wildlife. They are wrapped up in farming, travel, state fairs, archeology, philosophy, and so much more. When you plant heirloom seeds remember where they’ve been. Keep them going.

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All heirloom seed varieties offered by PlanetNatural.com are non-treated, non-GMO and NOT purchased from Monsanto-owned Seminis.
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