Heirloom Vegetables: What's the Big Deal?

Heirloom plants are those preserved by gardeners who collect and save seed in a particular region. These plants are open-pollinated, which means the resulting seed produces a plant similar to the parent plant. Open-pollinated plants are said to come true from seed.

Contrast that with a hybrid plant, which is what you typically find at your local garden center. It may or may not produce seed, which may or may not be sterile. If the seed isn't sterile, when planted it yields something different from the parent plant. Hybrid plants can't reproduce themselves by seed.

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Heirloom vegetables have been enjoying a strong resurgence. Garden experts debate exactly what date constitutes a true heirloom, but most agree a crop must be 40-50 years old to qualify. Some plants are thousands of years old, their origins traceable to Native Americans or ancient African cultures, for instance.

What Makes Heirlooms Great?

Flavor – Wonderful taste is the top reason gardeners grow heirlooms. Many heirlooms were displaced when local food production gave way to national shipping practices. Plant-breeding programs developed hybrids that excelled in long-distance shipping and long-term storage, frequently sacrificing flavor for traits such as thicker skins and quick ripening.

Staggered Ripening – Heirloom vegetables ripen slowly over time, offering produce at a gradual pace. Many, but not all, hybrids often ripen within a tight time frame, which makes them ideal for commercial harvest and processing.

Seed Saving – With heirlooms, you can save your own seed. That means you don't have to buy seed every year, which saves you money. Saving seed also produces plants that are adapted to local growing conditions.

Lower Prices – Heirloom vegetable seeds often cost less, especially if you source them through other growers. Once you start saving your own seed, seed cost drops to your time and effort – no out-of-pocket expense.

History Lessons – Some heirlooms offer a rich history. Backyard tomato breeder Radiator Charlie Byles developed Mortgage Lifter tomato in 1940s Virginia, using the profits from tomato seedling sales to pay off his farm. Omar's Lebanese tomato hails from a family farm in a Lebanese hill town. A Lebanese college student brought the seeds to America to grow.

Table Queen Acorn squash, first sold by the Iowa Seed Co. in 1913, descends from a heart-shaped winter squash grown by the Dakotas' Arikara Indians, who raised the long-storing squash for sustenance and trade. You'll find more fascinating history stories in our article 10 Great Heirloom Vegetables.

Heirlooms vs. Hybrids

For some gardeners, the case of heirlooms vs. hybrids presents an either/or question, but there are reasons to grow both types.

  • For instance, in areas prone to Nematode infestations, it's wise to grow Nematode-resistant hybrids.
  • If you preserve the harvest, growing hybrids can ensure that sufficient fruits ripen at the same time to fuel the preservation process. For more information on preserving your harvest, read our articles on how to get started with home caning and on Freezing Your Harvest.
  • For container gardeners, bush-style hybrids of cucumbers and squash are better suited to small-space growing than vining heirloom versions.
  • Some heirlooms require a long season to ripen, and if you garden where growing seasons are short, you'll never see a harvest.
  • Some heirlooms lack disease resistance and quickly succumb to diseases before producing a reasonable yield. Innovative seed companies are offering grafted heirlooms, with an heirloom plant grown on a disease-resistant rootstock. These grafted plants provide improved yields for gardeners in disease-prone areas.

When it comes to heirloom vegetables, the best choice is to mix it up in your garden. Grow both heirlooms and hybrids, trying something new each year. You'll find your favorites as you celebrate diversity.

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