10 Things I Like About Heirlooms

Grow It Forward Heirloom Seed Contest
Earlier this week I finalized my garden plans (well, as final as they will be until everything is in the ground and growing – we all know how that goes).  I ordered the last of my seeds, including several more heirloom varieties, and I'm feeling pretty good about the size and scope of my plans for the coming year.  While I’m anxiously waiting for the packages to arrive in the mail, it seems like a good place to start with this week’s Grow It Forward Friday post is to address the question I’ve been getting a lot lately: why heirlooms

It's a question that certainly deserves some thoughtful reflection.  For some, it's a matter of novelty.  For others, it's about something tangible that can be done to address some of the fundamental flaws in our food system.  For me, it's a little of both.  Yes, I love how heirlooms look, and it's fun to watch their progress, but it also just makes so much sense to include a few of them in my garden.  Here are some of the reasons I grow heirloom vegetables: 

We designed our raised bed gardens to be a prominent part of our backyard landscape, so I want them to be visually appealing in the same way that a gorgeous bed of perennial flowers is appealing.  I want a garden that photographs well, one that has different colors and textures, invites our guests to take a closer look, and strikes up conversations.  Flawlessly colored green beans and red tomatoes are beautiful, but an entire gardenscape of the usual stuff is a little like going to the produce section of any old grocery store.  Heirlooms add unexpected shapes, colors, and textures. 

I love the number of options I have with heirlooms.  The year I started my garden, I really wanted to grow purple beans, but I found myself standing in front of massive seed displays with just a handful green varieties, and maybe a yellow one, if I was lucky.  In the end, I settled for green (and was better prepared the following year).  With heirlooms, there is a whole array of bean-y goodness to discover.  Long, short, bush, pole, flat, dried, snap, runner, purple, green, yellow, speckled… now my problem is narrowing it down to what will actually fit in my garden.    

You don’t have to be a history buff to find it interesting that some of the varieties in your garden were also grown by Thomas Jefferson or carried halfway across the country by the Cherokee Indian Tribe.  The fact that these varieties have been preserved for so many generations is pretty impressive.  It gives each plant a story, and who doesn’t love a good story?

I am fortunate that I do have a basic understanding of what my family's heritage is, but at the same time, I'm far enough removed from those earlier generations that I don’t really have a sense of what that heritage really means.  My husband and I have made deliberate efforts to incorporate elements of our heritage into our lives (it’s one of the big reasons we traveled to Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic for our honeymoon).  I have chosen to grow certain heirlooms just because they come from Germany, Russia, and Poland – they may not have a direct connection to our heritage (that I know of), but it is a small way to maintain a connection to our roots.

Keep it Local
I rather enjoy the fact that by buying heirlooms, I’m often supporting small local businesses and vendors.  Just last weekend, Mike and I stopped at the Rainbow Food Co-op in Blue Earth, MN to shop their heirloom seed display and picked up a packet of Polish peppers (say that five times fast!) and I’m intentionally waiting to pick out my heirloom tomato plants from a Farmer’s Market vendor later in the spring. 

Seeds to Save
I’m always up for a good project, and last year I took a stab at seed saving.  I’ve learned a bit more about seed saving since then, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to experiment some more at the end of this season.  Open pollinated heirlooms are ideal for seed saving.    

The Bottom Line
Yes, there is sometimes a trade off when it comes to yield, but overall it not really that much more expensive to grow heirlooms than it is to grow other varieties.  In fact, often hybrid varieties more expensive because they are labor intensive to breed (this year my heirloom seeds cost between $0.09 and $2.50/packet, while a new variety of tomato seeds I considered was almost $5/packet).  And if you save even a few seeds from year to year, your initial investment can go a long way.     

Genetics, the Natural Way
Like fine wine and cheese, plant varieties get better with age.  Growing and saving seeds year after year will yield a stronger variety that has adapted naturally to local conditions. Heirlooms create the genetic diversity that is necessary for a healthy food system that adapts to changes in the local environment, diseases, and pests. 

There have been some interesting studies that have shown a lot of produce varieties grown today have a reduced nutritional concentration because the focus of breeding has been yield and uniformity.  Heirlooms have not only retained their nutritional content, but the fact that you are more likely to leave it on the vine to ripen slowly will also allow for those nutrients to fully develop. 

Okay, any homegrown tomato is going to taste fantastic, especially when compared to a grocery store tomato that was harvested early and “ripened” in transit.  But last summer when I picked my first Black Prince Heirloom tomato, it was like discovering the taste of tomato for the first time.  The flavor was rich, intense, and to die for.  I love that heirlooms give a better sense of the true spectrum of flavor that is available within each vegetable family.  It'll blow your mind when you realize you can describe the subtle flavor differences of heirloom tomatoes like some people describe a really great wine. 

What are the things you like about heirlooms? 

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