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Growing Heirloom Vegetables in the Home Garden

Updated on February 4, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

striped zebra tomato
striped zebra tomato

What Are Heirloom Vegetables?

Put simply, heirloom vegetables are the types of vegetables that our ancestors grew in their home gardens for centuries. During those centuries the vegetables, and fruits for that matter, adapted to their environments becoming drought resistant in dry, hot areas, and cold hardy in northern climes. Since our grandparents saved the best seed from the best plants the plants improved over time and became even hardier and more adapted to the local habitat.

Heirloom refers to any plant that was grown before the 1950s. After that time farming was more and more a commercial venture and the investors wanted more and more produce, not necessarily better produce. Hybrids became the new standard, mixtures of two varieties that created a product that ripened early and traveled well, never mind about the taste. From there food producers began to experiment with genetics in plants, changing certain aspects to make the plant more colorful, or have more omega-3, or even just to be bigger. Genetically modified plants don't have to be labeled genetically modified, so most people have no idea that they are eating something that has been, for all intents and purposes, tampered with.

Why Heirloom Plants?

Heirloom plants are open pollinated and recreate themselves by seed. Hybrid plants must be started by cuttings, the seeds are infertile. This in and of itself is a problem because it is much more efficient to grow plants from seeds you have saved yourself. You can choose which plants produced the best, which had the best taste, and then these are the plants you let go to seed at the end of the season to collect the seeds. With hybrids you must buy new seeds every year, making you a slave to consumerism.

Heirloom tomatoes taste like tomatoes. Do you remember that taste? Surely the entire flavor of summer is encased in a sun ripened Brandywine or Russian Black tomato! The flavors of heirloom vegetables and fruits are intense, not watered down like the commercial, hybrid varieties available in today's market.

Heirloom fruit and vegetables are also hardier. Some were grown in dry climates, some in hot climates, some in short growing seasons. The plants adapted and strengthened and so are very hardy in the habitat they were originally grown in. Check with your country agent, or read carefully the catalogs to see which plants are best suited for your area.

Some Interesting Heirloom Varieties

Heirlooms come in many varieties. There are numerous unusual colors, patterns, shapes, and flavors. With these fabulous plants you don't have to settle for mediocre flavors in your food but can experience many different flavors within the same type of vegetable.

Heritage carrots, mixed varieties
Heritage carrots, mixed varieties
Bulls Blood Beet has been grown for the rich red tops for over a century
Bulls Blood Beet has been grown for the rich red tops for over a century
Four Season Lettuce-1858
Four Season Lettuce-1858

Look at the rainbow of colors in the above picture. Who would have ever considered that carrots could be purple? Imagine a carrot side dish with a mixture of heirloom carrots.

Some interesting heirloom varieties are:

Beans

Black Valentine Bush Beans-1850. Dark green, string-less, and 6 inches long. Very tender and flavorful

FIN de BAGNOL - 1800's. - The round pods are picked when young and tender. Excellent for mini-gourmet veggies.

Cucumber

LEMON CUCUMBER-1894 - The lemon shaped cucumbers are pale yellow with white flesh.

WHITE WONDER -1893 - matures to a white color, which makes them easier to spot at harvest

Summer Squash

BENNINGS GREEN TINT SCALLOP -1914- pale green, patty-pan type has scalloped edges

WHITE PATTY PAN -This variety was used by the North American Indian tribes before the European settlers arrived!

Apple:

ANANAS REINETTE Netherlands 1821 - intense sweet, sharp flavor, developing a pineapple flavor late in the season

JEFFERIS-Pennsylvania 1830-rich, pear-like flavor

There are many more varieties of heirloom fruit and vegetables, way too many to list here. A leisurely browse through some of the links provided below will provide thousands of interesting varieties and plants. In choosing consider carefully your needs. What is your climate? What do you want to accomplish? What is your soil like? Choose plants with an eye to what their strengths are for a successful gardening experience.

Heirloom varieties can add beauty and taste to your table...but they can also be a profitable crop for the homesteader.

black aztec corn-1860
black aztec corn-1860

Heirloom Vegetables Are Designer Vegetables

Heirloom vegetables are becoming more and more popular as consumers recognize that what they are buying at the grocery might be affordable but is lacking in quality. The renewed interest in organics and concerns about the environment also are spurring on a campaign ot buy locally.

Not everyone can have a garden Some people don't have the time, some don't have the interest, and some don't have the land. Those who have the ability to grow heirloom vegetables can find it a profitable venture in a niche market. Small grocers, restaurant owners, and personal chefs are good people to approach with small amounts of good quality, organic vegetables. Some towns have farmers markets, or allow roadside stands which are also excellent ways to sell the food you grow. Consider putting an ad on a local Internet list, like craigslist.com. Heirloom vegetables are sought after and marketable additions to your garden.

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    • Joe Macho profile image

      Zach 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      Great hub and excellent information. Heirloom vegetables are very important. In fact, I'll only eat Heirloom corn as the store bought corn makes me feel like the boy in your first picture...

    • profile image

      Jack@BSS 

      7 years ago

      Folk from Bellingen Seed Savers have been collecting heirloom seeds for a few years now. It is interesting to see the different varieties collected and grown in the northern hemisphere. Of course, the other advantage is that we, the people, own the seeds, not the multinational seed companies that want to control the patents.

    • chspublish profile image

      chspublish 

      7 years ago from Ireland

      Recently I've come to the realization of the importance of heirloom varieties.

      Thanks for the hub and for confirming my convinction, while I gaze at next year's newly ordered unusual varieties of heirloom tomatoes. I then intend next year to save the seed and pass it on to neighboring gardeners and hobby vegetable growers and then maybe do a presentation on the value of these seeds. Thanks again.

    • Karen Ellis profile image

      Karen Ellis 

      8 years ago from Central Oregon

      I am a big fan of purchasing and saving heirloom seeds. It's just one more step in becoming self sufficient.

    • profile image

      sue johnston 

      9 years ago

      I am preparing a power point presentation on heirloom vegetables for beginning gardeners and would like to use some of your images. How do I obtain permission to do so? Thank you.

    • cgull8m profile image

      cgull8m 

      11 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks Marye I will check that book. Cheers :)

    • Marye Audet profile imageAUTHOR

      Marye Audet 

      11 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      You know, in the Amazon links, square foot gardening is really good for beginners. I prefer to incorporate my vegetables in with the rest of my gardens so I switch off between square foot and working the stuff in other places. :) And the thing about heirloom veggies is that they are more forgiving than the hybrids. :) MUCH easier to grow. I plan on doing a hub on seed saving very soon.

    • cgull8m profile image

      cgull8m 

      11 years ago from North Carolina

      All healthy foods Marye, great blog, I wish I know how to do this gardening at home. Is there a good book I can follow?

    • Marye Audet profile imageAUTHOR

      Marye Audet 

      11 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      livelonger- I have not yet seen that particular eggplant. I am hoping to get more heirloom varieties in my garden next spring.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 

      11 years ago from San Francisco

      Heirloom tomatoes are in season here in Oakland, and I usually splurge and buy a couple of pounds at the Splash Pad farmer's market on Saturdays. They are so succulent and rich-tasting. I've also had some interesting squash & eggplant varieities lately, including a great eggplant called "Turkish Orange" (it's small, fibrous and bright, bright orange). It's a trend I'm really enjoying right now...

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