5 Grow-Anywhere Heirlooms

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Heirloom seeds, like tried-and-true growing practices, have been passed down by gardeners for generations. Today, their popularity is growing, but heirlooms are generally not varieties grown commercially. The definition presumes it is a valuable cultivar whose loss would be mourned, due to its unique traits or value to the gene pool.

So many varieties have been lost that the definition would cover nearly every old seed still in existence. A research group studied U.S. Department of Agriculture variety listings in 1903 and 1983 and charted a loss of 93 percent of vegetable and fruit varieties over that time. 

Today, old varieties are prized for their uniqueness, their beauty, and for the simple fact that you can save their seeds and grow the same variety next year – something that is not possible with many commercial hybrids.

“Our cultural heritage is really fascinating, and it adds a layer of interest for me,” says Lisa Taylor, author of the book “Your Farm in the City” (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2010). “Heirloom seeds connect us to our immigrant history, and connect us globally.”

Their stories come to life when you experience the unique flavors springing from many heirloom vegetables.

“Our tastes have really gotten very homogenous,” says Taylor. “Folks are saying, hey, this was popular a hundred years ago, let’s see what’s up!”

In heirlooms, she finds Lemon cucumbers so sweet that her son will eat them straight from the garden; sturdy Lacinato kale “looks great in the landscape, looks great in the kitchen, eats well and is beautiful.”

Of course, the pinnacle of heritage vegetables is the tomato, which can delight and surprise.

With an abundance of heirlooms available as seeds and starts at your local nursery, or online at seed companies like the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange, there is truly something for every taste.

“I like to grow a new heirloom tomato every year,” says Taylor, “just to see how it grows, what the plant looks like and what the fruit tastes like.” For heirloom gardeners, every summer is a new exploration of a very old story.

Try these popular, time-tested heirloom vegetables in your garden this year.

Brandywine tomato.

Large, juicy beefsteak variety prized for flavor. Pink, red or yellow, depending on the strain. Thin skin, mildly acidic, needs fairly long season.

Lacinato kale.

Also known as Tuscan or Dinosaur kale. Spear-shaped, dark green leaves grow to 12 inches, not the ruffled fan type of other kales. Compact plants are long-season producers. Strip ribs away and chop into hearty soups and stir-fries.

Rainbow chard.

Also called Five-colored Silverbeet or Bright Lights Swiss chard. Stems come in red, pink, yellow, orange and white, with green leafy tops. From the beet family, but without a bulbous root. Winter star in mild climates. Young leaves transform a salad, mature leaves and stems sizzle in the wok.

Speckled lettuce.

Beautiful variety with sprays of maroon dotting its ruffled green leaves. Forms loose heads of tender, buttery leaves. Resists bolting (going to seed), providing a longer productive season.

Tromboncino squash.

Distinctive long, curved squash with a bell end. Can be quite curled into a circle or grow straighter if on a trellis. A rampicante (climbing) variety that really grabs a trellis. Tender, mild, tan flesh, good fresh but can hold into fall for baking.

Tags: tomatoes, kale, garden, vegetables