Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Heirloom Vegetables
heirloom vegetables are among the very best vegetables.  

The subject of heirloom vegetables is something that is near and dear to my heart! Having grown my own vegetables and herbs for over twenty-years, I have come to the conclusion that heirloom vegetables are among the very best vegetables in my garden for a myriad of reasons. Yes, there is something nostalgic for sure about growing some of the very same varieties that were prized by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington; who were not only great founding fathers of our nation but also farmers and avid gardeners at heart. They too loved working the land, growing their esteemed vegetable varieties and savoring the fruit of the earth, when time permitted them to do so. Thomas Jefferson kept detailed notes on each of the hundreds of varieties he grew in his vegetable garden and was constantly experimenting with planting methods and noting the subtle differences between varieties.

If you are not familiar with the difference between “heirloom” vegetables, which are old open pollinated varieties, and the newer hybrids, the following is a brief primer on the differences. This is not an all-inclusive explanation, but one that will hopefully suffice for the moment and explain this difference—in layman’s terms.

Open-pollinated varieties vs. hybrids
Open-pollinated varieties are naturally pollinated in the garden by bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and the like. Open pollinated seed varieties grown from their own seed will come back “true to type” and each successive generation of plants and “fruit” will consistently be the same. If you save the seed from vegetables that have been grown in your garden from heirloom vegetables and other open pollinated varieties, you will receive exactly the same vegetable that you saved the seed from. Saving seed is easy and economical. There are also seed exchanges all over the country and in Virginia that exist for the purpose of sharing and preserving heirloom vegetables.

Hybrids on the other hand are often bred in a controlled environment, utilizing one father and one mother, to obtain the desired results of the breeder. There are many good hybrid plants on the market, particularly tomatoes. They tend to be rounder and more uniform in shape and size; however they tend to be sterile. If you plant a hybrid tomato this year and save some of the seed for planting next year, you will be in for a big surprise. It probably will not germinate at all and if by chance it does, the plant will not have the same qualities as the hybrid it was saved from. Hybrids are not capable of producing themselves “true to type,” like open-pollinated varieties can.

There are however, in all fairness, issues that can arise from haphazard planting and open-pollination that can produce some unintended and intriguing variations in similar plants and vegetables. For example, if you plant various types in your garden in close proximity, various types of squash will readily cross with each other. These can produce some very interesting results though, that I myself have had occur in my own garden. These interesting and naturally occurring crosses can be lots of fun for the adventurous vegetable gardener and leave you with some interesting and previously unknown squash types! They are still very edible but you’ll get things like a sweet potato spaghetti squash or a sweet ronde de nice. I’ve even had long skinny yellow zucchini’s that I have to say were quite delicious!

Some Gardening Wisdom learned through trial and error
The brassica’s, such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and cabbage, can often cross pollinate if planted in close proximity to each other. If you want to save seed from specific varieties, you will have to limit what you grow or isolate them in different locations.

Squash and pumpkins should not be grown near each other or you will be harvesting some strange “squashkins.” Likewise, keep cucumbers and melons away from each other or you may end up with some gorgeous melons that taste like cucumbers!

This happened to me when I first started vegetable gardening, so I am sharing these learning experiences with you in the hopes that you will be wise and learn from my interesting mishaps! (A wise man or woman learns from the mistakes of others…) It was great fun though and has provided me with some really funny stories. Now that we understand the difference between open-pollination and hybridization, let’s move on to what makes heirlooms so special.

So what makes an heirloom vegetable so special?
Heirloom vegetables are those open-pollinated, older varieties introduced eons ago, that have stood the test of time, for the wonders of their taste, superior disease resistance, marvelous coloring, intriguing shapes and because they are just plain wonderful!

Heirlooms come in some of the most amazing shapes, sizes and color combinations that you can imagine and the flavors are often rich and intense—something that cannot be matched by even the best store-bought produce. Some people want to put a date on heirlooms, but this often results in nothing more than “hair splitting.” What is important to know is that many of them have been grown for hundreds of years in our country, in Europe and beyond. They are still the vegetables of choice among connoisseurs for their culinary taste, adaptability to various climates and growing conditions, and they are living history as well. Any vegetable that has stood the test of time and been valued enough to have its seed passed on through multiple generations is worthy of our notice. Ask anyone who has ever grown heirloom vegetables, and you will find that they are truly passionate about them—myself included.

By now you are probably thinking about trying some heirloom vegetables in your garden—but which ones should you try? The following is an overview of some of the most reliable and often grown heirloom vegetables today. Some of them will be familiar to you and others will not. Whatever varieties you choose to grow you will also grow to love them for their myriad of attributes and ease of cultivation. Keep in mind that these varieties have not lasted so long on taste alone but because they are easier to cultivate than many new varieties. Here are some suggestions that you might want to try in your garden. Start out small, with just a few choices for maximum success. You can add to your garden as your experience increases.

Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes are the most popular of all the heirloom vegetable varieties, and with good reason. They come in a myriad of shapes, colors, color variations and sizes. Some are very large and others quite small like grapes. Some are eve fluted, cylindrical and even pear shaped. Their colors can include red, peach, coral, orange, pink, purple, yellow, green, white and even vividly striped color variations. Their tastes vary from rich and beefy to sweet and peach-like. They have different growth habits. Some are bushy types and others require large supports. You owe it to yourself to try some of the following amazing heirloom tomato varieties available, which are some of my favorites. Besides the amazing production of fruits, they are truly vigorous and beautiful plants in their own right.

  • Caspian Pink is a truly gorgeous pink tomato that is so delicious it defies description. It is a very sweet, succulent and juicy tomato that is the favorite of just about everyone who has tried it. Fruits about 11–12 oz.
  • Black Krim is a purple variety up to 12 oz in size. The color darkens as the weather gets hotter. Very rich flavor.
  • Brandywine is the classic heirloom tomato loved by many.
  • Big Rainbow have ruby red streaks all over and within a gorgeous golden yellow tomato. Great for sandwiches!
  • Persimmon is orange persimmon color, unbelievable taste. Early harvest. Medium size.
  • Green Zebra is an intriguing tomato and one of the most beautiful. Small golden green with forest green stripes.
  • Garden Peach are small peach like tomatoes with a mild flavor. They come in red-peach or yellow-peach varieties.
  • Lillian’s Yellow is a classic yellow heirloom tomato.
  • German Pink are one-pound-plus-sized, beefsteak-sized tomatoes. One slice can make a sandwich. Sweet and tart at the same time. Needs lots of streaking and loves the Virginia heat. This is one of my favorites.
  • Constoluto Genovese is a tomato from the rich growing regions of Italy. One-pound-plus-sized fruit is great for sandwiches, slicing, sauces and is excellent for baking. It is also totally resistant to tomato wilts. This is a fantastic variety by any standard and so versatile.

For cooking or paste tomatoes you might want to try:

  • Amish Paste, which has few seeds, has a really rich flavor and looks like a giant acorn. This is one tomato that will give you more tomatoes than you know what to do with.
  • Polish Linguisa is great tasting and good for sauce or eating off the vine.
  • San Marzano is the traditional heirloom sauce tomato from Italy.

Finally, I also like some of the pear and current type cluster tomatoes that are not heirlooms but are fantastic in large pots for eating right off the vine. I train these on a plant support and grow then in large urns or pots. They are fantastic!

Heirloom Squash

  • Ronde de Nice sounds nice enough to grow because of the name, however, this variety would be great if it didn’t sound so “nice.” This is a beautiful baseball- to softball-sized zucchini with a beautiful delicate skin. I grow this and use it for stuffing with ratatouille and other concoctions that I come up with from my garden. It is utterly fantastic and makes a beautiful presentation. It is also FABULOUS for those who love tempura or fried zucchini.
  • Yellow Crookneck. Yes, that fantastic “wartified” yellow squash your grandmother grew is still one of the best ever. Nothing will ever take its place as the best of the best yellow summer squash.
  • Tromboncino is long thin 10–18” long fruits that are as beautiful as they are delicious. Harvest them young while they are green or you will end up with gourds. Grow on a trellis.
  • Sweet Potato Squash is beautiful buff-colored squash that looks like large flesh-colored acorn squash. Very sweet and creamy. We love ours baked. This is a winter squash.
  • Other squash that is distinctive and a “can’t live without” vegetable is the infamous Spaghetti Squash. Grow this and you will never forget it. All of these varieties we grow every year and cannot imagine being without them. I grow fresh herbs such as many basils, oregano, rosemary, thyme, garlic and chives to accompany our squashes.

Our summer garden would never be complete without our beloved eggplants, which were also much loved by Thomas Jefferson, who grew the white variety in his vegetable garden.
I grow four varieties. They are as follows:

  • Pingtung Long are 12” long eggplants that are great in our hot and humid summers. They are slender and a beautiful lavender eggplant on lovely plants.
  • White bush eggplant (in large pots)
  • Black Beauty which is the classic Italian eggplant.
  • India Paint is a variety that I like to grow also in large pots on my brick patio. Beautiful and vigorous plants that are as beautiful as they are fruitful. These are fantastic for grilling. We love grilled eggplants and you will too.

Lettuces and Salad Greens
There is no finer pleasure in the summer garden than freshly picked salad greens and lettuces that have been grown for generations. In our area you can space out your lettuce with cut-and-come again varieties, corn salad or lambs lettuce, spinach, mixed mesclun, endive and the like.

Mesclun means “mixture” in French. Look for mesclun mixtures for our type of garden climate (USDA Zone). These mixtures often contain arugula, endive, radicchio, cutting lettuces, chicories, peppery cress, purslane and more. They need to be re-sown every few weeks, kept watered and cut often. Some partial shade along with the sun will leave you
with lovely mesclun to make your salads “pop.”

There are many varieties of heirloom butterhead, crisphead, romaine and cutting loose-leaf lettuces that will do well in our hot climate such as:

  • Craquerelle du Midi which is a loose romaine type with an open head that is well suited for our summers.
  • Red Grenoble is another French variety that is weather resistant and vigorous. Can be cut early or allowed to increase in size up to 16” across.
  • Bibb is the all-American tender headed gourmet lettuce bred in the 1800’s.
  • Matchless is good cutting and heat tolerant lettuce.
  • Some smaller seed companies offer lettuces and greens that are a blend of newer and heirloom varieties that will give you profuse yields of salad greens—blended to tolerate heat and humidity well.

Did you know that many of the peppers we grow in our garden are heirlooms? They are the easy to grow classics, like:

  • Corno di Toro
  • Friggitello is the classic frying Italian pepper 3”–4”
  • Marconi is the largest of the Italian stuffing / frying peppers 8”+.
  • Aneheim is a mild chili pepper 8–9” long.
  • Thai are classic tiny powerhouses of heat and are lovely when grown in large pots.
  • Jalepeno is the classic hot pepper of the American Southwest.

No garden is complete without cucumbers. There are many great varieties of cucumbers that can be grown from seed, like “homemade pickles” and “yellow submarine.” However, a fantastic and not well-known heirloom classic is:

  • Lemon variety is intriguingly very round and very yellow with a crisp texture and classic cucumber taste. They are beautifully speckled with smooth edible skin that makes them great for eating whole or sliced.

Anyone can grow fresh vegetables, almost anywhere
You can grow a garden anywhere. Whether it is a large garden, small backyard garden or even a potted garden, there are a myriad of ways to add fresh vegetables to your life. There is no greater improvement that you could make to your health than adding more fruits and vegetables to your daily diet. Homegrown vegetables are unequalled in flavor and health benefits. Whether you are a “seasoned” gardener with years of experience or a first time gardener—why not try an heirloom vegetable or two and grow a little bit of edible history.

Heirloom seeds are available at many seed exchanges and quality oriented garden seed suppliers. Here in Virginia there are numerous display gardens that grow “period” and heirloom vegetables. They themselves are also excellent sources for heirloom vegetable seeds. Some of the most notable heirloom kitchen display gardens can be found at:

  • Stratford Hall Plantation
  • Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
  • George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg
  • The Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia, Staunton

The kitchen or vegetable garden has changed little over the years, except that we have gotten away from the great old varieties of the past that have stood the test of time. These varieties are survivors of days gone by—aided by individuals who saw their worth in the garden and on the table. So, let us heed the times and heed the call to plant our own gardens once again. Taste matters now more than ever, as does the quality and freshness of our food. With the popularity of fine cuisine and gourmet cooking as a hobby, people are finding that there is nothing that compares with the sublime and edible pleasures of the homegrown kitchen garden. May you consider heirloom vegetables for the place they have earned in the garden and on your table. Let us return to growing and appreciating the sublime pleasures of the homegrown garden! With that said —May all of the ground you plant yield wonderfully edible treasures, now and always!


Article by Karin Andrews