Vegetables with a Past

Part of what I love about gardening is the connection to the past I experience as I step away from my computer and sink into the ancient activity of tending plants.  I love working with antique tools.  I conjure the energy and memory of the gardeners and farmers who were first to use those tools.  Important to my backwards time travel through gardening, is growing vegetables with a past.

I grow heirloom vegetables from seed.  That said, I have to admit, I don’t understand every detail about how heirloom seeds are different than others.  It’s pretty complex.

I know heirloom seeds are older varieties.  There are several schools of thought about how long a variety needs to be around before it can be called an heirloom.  Some think the seeds need a demonstrated lineage going back at least one hundred years.  Others say an heirloom seed is one that has been handed down in a family from generation to generation.  I personally believe that a seed can be qualified as an heirloom if it was around pre-WW2.

World war two marks the beginning of agriculture as we know it.  Chemicals used in the war, soon made their way onto farms and into home gardens.  The concept of “better living through science,” led to mass hybridization of plants as a way to produce more food in the most efficient manner.

Plants that were popular before WW2, have two characteristics that qualify them as heirlooms in my mind.  They aren’t generally hybrids (though they can be) and they are time tested through generations.

Importantly, heirlooms are NEVER genetically modified.  Safely – non-GMO.

Heirloom vegetables have more flavor.   When seeds were saved harvest after harvest, and handed down over time,  families would choose to save the seed from the vegetables that tasted the best.  Our ancestors sometimes saved seeds because the plants were hardy or the vegetable stored well in a cold cellar.  But the main reason seed was handed down and shared with neighbors and friends, was that the seed grew plants that fruited with amazing tasting vegetables.  (More on this soon in a review of Chris McLaughlin’s  WONDERFUL The Complete Guide to Heirloom Vegetables)

When you grow heirloom vegetables, a whole new- old- world of squash, tomatoes, peppers, (any vegetable, really) opens in a rainbow of color and flavor.  Have fun and enjoy the veggie-growing ride.

Thanks for the top photo!  http://www.flickr.com/photos/dumbonyc/

Thanks for the tomato image! ttp://www.flickr.com/photos/swanksalot/

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About the Author

Laura Mathews

Laura is a garden writer and photographer. She writes online content for gardening websites, writes for gardening publications and blogs for three gardening blogs. Her interests are local food, organic gardening, backyard homesteading and native plants. She assists gardening related clients with social media. And occasionally, she'll offer a solicited opinion as a garden coach.

4 Comments

  1. This is a great explanation of heirloom, thanks! Last year was our first year with a real garden and we grew only a few heirloom tomatoes. Now we are growing almost all garden vegetables heirloom versions.

    # Posted on February 7, 2011 at 11:38 pm by meemsnyc
  2. Here’s a University of Illinois Extension fact sheet discussing hybrids “open pollinated” varieties, and heirlooms:

    http://urbanext.illinois.edu/hortihints/0102a.html

    And here’s a link to the heirloom tomato story of “Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter”

    http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.htm?programID=05-P13-00038&segmentID=8

    # Posted on February 9, 2011 at 5:18 pm by Ray E.
  3. I really want to do an heirloom garden that features vegetables that are the \wrong\ color: white eggplants and blue corn and striped tomatoes and black carrots, etc.

    # Posted on March 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm by Xan at Mahlzeit
  4. Nice article. Another key difference between hybrids and heirlooms is that heirlooms have open-pollinated seeds. This means if you plant an heirloom seed it will reproduce true-to-type. (Or, like its parents.)

    Hybrid seeds can’t be replanted. They need to be bought new each year. That’s why they can’t be passed down through generations. Some heirlooms are actually young, such as ‘Green Zebra,’ which was created by breeding different heirlooms together. Other heirlooms happen by accident, through a freak of nature. ;)

    Once you start, it’s easy to love heirlooms. Thanks for sharing. Teresa

    # Posted on March 31, 2011 at 10:29 am by Teresa O'Connor

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