As gardeners are considering what they will plant in their vegetable and flower gardens this spring, many are considering whether the choices should consider heirloom vegetables.
Raising heirloom vegetables has become something of a cause among rural and urban gardeners — perhaps even something of a movement.
According to the Plant Natural Research Center, which provides advice to those who are attempting to be organic gardeners, the 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 who worked the earth before us. It also allows us to extend the connection to our children, grandchildren and beyond.
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. 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.
According to Eric Vinje of Plant Natural, 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 seed of our own, he said.
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 organic gardeners may rely on. And while disease resistance may be engineered into a hybrid crop, it’s often at the expense of general quality.
Vinje said the superior taste of heirloom vegetables compared to commercial mono-cultural vegetables grown by industrial agricultural methods, makes them hugely attractive. 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 homegrown heirlooms almost always have more nutritional value than their hybrid, commercially-grown counterparts.
Heirlooms make a direct link to history and the gardening practices of preceding generations, he said. 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 our forebears grew gives you a direct connection to gardening heritage.
“The most important reason to grow heirloom vegetables is to preserve biodiversity,” Vinje emphasized. “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, widespread 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 60,000-100,000 plant species are threatened with extinction, he said. Those who grow and collect the seed of heirlooms could well save the planet.
“Heirloom plants are definitely not Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs — those corporate-owned food crops engineered with an eye to the bottom line,” Vinje explained. “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.”
Vinje urged those considering heirloom seeds should check out Lynn Coulter’s book “Gardening with Heirloom Seeds,” from the University of North Carolina Press. He said Coulter notes, “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.”