When my friend Meghan suggested we have a whole section dedicated to heirlooms on this blog I thought she might be placing a little too much emphasis on them. To me, an heirloom was a pretty tomato - a vegetable grown by mega-serious gardeners who wanted to impress their neighbors with rare produce. How wrong I was! After a lot of reading I am a changed (and educated) woman. I can now say that in the future I may not plant anything BUT heirlooms. Want to know why? Well first let's define what an heirloom vegetable is...
1. Old - Usually associated with plants dating from the 1920's and older. It's hard to date them but some American heirlooms varieties are believed to be Pre-Columbian (meaning before Columbus came to America). Many heirloom seeds may have been carried by your ancestors across the ocean to America hundreds of years ago! There were reasons people held onto these seeds...
2. Open-pollinating - meaning if you gather seeds from your plants you'll get the same plant next year. You might not know this but if you tried to gather seeds from your garden center tomato plants and grow them the next year you wouldn't get the same plant from it. These plants are not able to reproduce and are often sterile. (Unless of course it's an heirloom) Over hundreds of years these seeds were gathered from the best plants of the harvest and continue to produce that same quality. Think of the savings!
3. High quality - The best of the heirlooms really are wonderful. They have it all. They taste wonderful, look beautiful, and are easy to grow. The vegetables and fruits you buy in the grocery store were not bred for flavor or quality - but for uniformity and ease of transporting. Which means that many pale in comparison when it comes to taste. Many people say that once you taste an heirloom vegetable you'll realize you have been eating the cardboard version of this veggie all your life. How exciting to taste flavors that mother nature intended you to have - unadulterated pleasure! At least as much as food can give you - which is a lot to a foodie like me!
Heirlooms were cultivated for many years to produce strong, disease fighting, climate hardy plants. In fact, some heirlooms were very locale specific - sometimes as much as a small valley with very specific weather patterns. The plants you purchase from the garden supply may tolerate your climate but they aren't complex creatures ready to thrive in your climate - but your heirlooms just may be.
Diversity and variety are good not only for our taste buds but also for our gardens. Another vital reason to maintain heirlooms is to keep their genetic traits for future use. When old varieties of food crops are not maintained, the gene pool grows smaller and smaller. This may lead to increased disease and pest problems. You may have pest or disease problems in your garden but with many different varieties the likelihood of all of your plants being affected is very low.
While this is just the tip of the iceberg(lettuce?) when it comes to heirlooms and their distinction, I hope you feel as inspired as I do to try out these treasured plants. So, this year when planning for your garden why not try some heirlooms? You may feel you are connecting to the past and sharing a heritage with your forebears in the planting of these wonderful vegetables and fruits. (There are also heirloom status livestock - animals that are better suited for the free range instead of the factory.) You can order heirloom seeds from several different companies including the Seed Savers Exchange. This company has a free seed catalog - order one even if you're not ready to plant heirlooms - just to acquaint yourself with these treasured plants!
More seed links:
Victory Heirloom Seeds
Amishland Heirloom Seeds
Heirloom Vegetable Gardener's Source
A lot of my information came from this wonderful site and this amazing book(I'll be reviewing this book very soon.) Images from Mike Donk & Scott Bauer