Do you remember the flavor-packed tomatoes that you used to enjoy when you were a child? Maybe you still, wistfully think about the gloriously sweet taste of freshly picked garden peas. Now, many years on, you’ve scoured organic markets and tried growing numerous different varieties but nothing comes close to the taste of your memories. This is where heirloom vegetables come in.
If you want to discover exactly what heirloom vegetables are, and why they’ll be great for your garden, then this is the guide for you.
What are Heirloom Vegetables?
Heirloom varieties are old varieties of fruit or vegetables that predate modern agricultural techniques. They’re specifically cultivated for their taste, and probably a vegetable gardener’s best-kept secret. Before hybrid varieties were introduced, gardeners kept seeds from the most flavorsome species to plant again the following year.
As a result, heirloom varieties often have the best flavors.
In contrast most modern vegetables are genetic hybrids. These hybrid plants are a combination of at least two different parent varieties. Now, hybrids are easy-to-grow, disease-resistant plants, but these developments have a downside. They might resist disease, or grow quickly, but these traits often come at the expense of flavor.
If you want to grow flavor-packed varieties, then heirloom vegetables may be ideal for you.
The Benefits of Heirloom Vegetables
Heirloom fruit and vegetables differ from the more common hybrid varieties in a number of ways.
Some horticulturists believe that varieties of fruit or vegetables must be at least 50 years old to qualify as a heirloom. Others argue that the cultivar must have been developed before 1951. Following 1951, hybrid varieties were introduced to the market.
Many types of heirloom vegetables are much older than the early 1950s. In fact, some cultivated in the UK and USA even date back to the late 1800s. This legacy means that flavor—as well as other qualities such as hardiness—have been maintained and developed. This in turn produces exceptionally high-quality fruits and vegetables.
2. True to Type
Heirloom varieties rely on open pollination by the wind, insects, and birds. As a result, this open pollination produces seeds that are true to type. This means that the new plant has the same size, color, flavor, and growth habits as its predecessors.
As we have already noted, heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated. This means that you can choose what works best in your garden, saving the seeds to plant them next year. While you can save hybrid seeds, the results are often poor and unsatisfactory. If you aren’t sure how to save seeds, this is a great guide.
Another benefit of growing the same variety year after year is that it improves in strength over time. In other words, the crop adapts to its surroundings, becoming increasingly better suited to local growing conditions. Additionally, the crop develops an immunity to regional pests and potential stress factors. As you can imagine, this produces a very hardy plant.
One of the main reasons people grow heirloom vegetables is because they have a superior quality to hybrid varieties. Crops are often harvested when they are underripe, meaning that they ripen as they are transported to shelves ready for you to purchase. However, picking underripe fruit or vegetables can mean that they aren’t as flavor-packed as they could be.
In contrast, heirloom vegetables date from a time when shelf life was of little concern. Many people grew their own vegetables, or purchased locally grown, fresh produce and ate it the same day. This meant that these varieties were allowed to ripen fully before being harvested. As durability wasn’t an issue, vegetables and fruit seeds were selected primarily on the basis of flavor.
Additionally heirloom varieties are thought to be more nutritious than newer, hybrid varieties.
5. They aren’t Uniform
Heirloom vegetables are less uniform in appearance than hybrid varieties. This means that your crop is unlikely to ripen all at the same time, and the vegetables won’t all look alike. While commercial growers prize uniform, hybrid varieties that ripen all together, this can result in a glut in home gardens.
There’s nothing more frustrating for a gardener than seeing all your hard work rot because you can’t use the crop quickly enough. Sure, you can do some canning and preserving, but there’s nothing quite like eating a sun-ripened tomato right off the vine, right?
Heirloom vegetables’ staggered ripening allows you to enjoy a steady supply of great-tasting, fresh produce.
In addition, one final benefit of heirloom vegetables is that seeds are often cheaper than hybrid varieties.
- Heirloom vegetables are generally sown and cared for in the same way as hybrid varieties. There are, however, a few little tips that will help to ensure a successful planting.
- Firstly, try to plant self-pollinating vegetables such as tomatoes, beans, peas, peppers, and lettuce at least 10ft away from other varieties. This prevents cross-pollination, which can ruin your crops’ flavor.
- When selecting which seeds to keep, select seeds only from the healthiest, tastiest, most productive plants. This ensures that these good qualities will be present in the following years crop.
- Allow seeds to ripen fully before you harvest them. This is because ipe seeds are more likely to produce healthy plants. Once you’ve harvested the seeds place them in a dry, warm place, preferably indoors, and allow them to dry.
- When the seeds are dry, store them in a paper envelope or a sealed glass jar. Keep your seeds in a cool, dry location. Remember to clearly label and date the seeds, including the variety.
- Place silica gel packs inside the jar to keep seeds dry and prolong their lifespan. Additionally, adding some diatomaceous earth will help to deter insects.
The Downside of Heirloom Vegetables
The biggest downside to growing heirloom vegetables is that they’re usually not as disease-resistant as hybrids. Don’t let this deter you from growing heirloom varieties, though! Crop rotation and good growing practices, such as regularly pruning and planting in fresh soil, will reduce the chances of disease striking.
10 Heirloom Varieties to try
Now that you’ve read all about the benefits of heirloom vegetables you’ll no doubt be eager to give them a try. There are lots of heirloom vegetable varieties available. Here is a selection of 10 to get you started.
1. Lolla Rossa Lettuce
This is a loose-leafed, frilly, red-tipped lettuce variety with a nutty flavor. Like hybrid lettuce, it’s easy to sow and grow. It’s happiest in full sun or partial shade, and will mature in around 55 days. This variety is best grown in USDA zones 4-9, as it may bolt in warmer temperatures.
2. Rainbow Carrots
Rainbow heirloom carrot seed blends add gorgeous color to your roasts or salads. This versatile crop will grow in beds and containers and will reach maturity in around 70 days. It will grow happily in a range of climates, including USDA zones 3-11.
3. Moon and Stars Watermelon
An Amish heirloom variety. The dark green skin, with bright yellow patches and a bumpy rind hides a sweet, bright red watermelon. The sort you enjoyed in childhood. These grow best in USDA zones 3-9 and mature in about 100 days.
4. Yellow Pear Tomato
Small tomatoes that thrive in full sun, especially USDA zones 6-13, you’ll need to provide some support as these plants can reach up to 12ft. These mild, sweet tomatoes will be ready to harvest in around 78 days.
5. Blue Hubbard Squash
The blue-gray skin makes this variety an interesting visual addition to the garden. Once you open the squash, you’ll find a sweet, orange flesh that’s great for pies and purees. This variety matures in 110 days.
6. Royal Burgundy Beans
These popular, purple bush beans thrive in cooler climates, such as zones 3-9, and full sun positions. They’re largely pest- and disease-resistant, and their striking purple color will enliven any garden. Note that this distinctive coloring will fade to green when cooked. Ready to harvest within 50 days of sowing.
7. Henderson Lima Bean
Buttery and delicious Hendersons do best in zones 3-9. When grown in a full sun location, they reach maturity within 90 days.
8. Big Jim Peppers
A mild, heavy yielding, reliable variety, these bright red peppers are ready for harvest within 75 days. If you can’t wait that long, you pick them early when they are still green. If you’ve never grown peppers before, this is a useful guide.
9. Purple Orach
A colorful addition to salads and sautees, purple orach is a reliable spinach substitute. This variety grows best in warm weather and is ready to harvest within 60 days.
10. Lemon Cucumber
This round, pale yellow variety really does resemble a lemon, hence its name. This is a reliable variety that’s hardy in zones 4-12. It grows well in full sun, and will mature in 70 days.
Heirloom vegetables are packed full of flavor, come in distinctive shapes and colors, and are always fun to grow. The sheer number of varieties on offer means that there are lots of options for you to explore. Best of all, you can save the seeds to trade with friend and neighbors to increase biodiversity in your own backyards.