Thursday, May 1, 2014

What is an Heirloom Plant by Caroline Reardon
An heirloom seed today will grow into a plant that is an exact replica of its 50- to 100-year-old ancestor. And the seed of this plant will grow into an exact replica of itself for future generations to enjoy. Wind, bees, birds or other natural helpers have pollinated it —no scientific intervention to “improve” its production, uniformity, transportability and resistance to diseases or pesticide—and it has been cultivated. An heirloom plant is a vintage treasure and an important link from our past to our future.

Why should I grow them?  Just taste one! Heirloom fruits and vegetables are prized for their amazing flavors. Our gardening forefathers and foremothers saved seeds selected from their most delicious produce to grow again the next year, and then the next year and the next. We now benefit from their selective process, saving the best to grow the best. You can continue this heritage by saving seeds from your favorites to grow in your garden next year.

Love some of their quirky colors, shapes and sizes! To mention just a few, you can grow porcelain-white eggplants; curly green beans; pineapple-flavored tomatillos; yellow, green, pink, pear-shaped or ruffled tomatoes; small, tall, flat, ribbed, round, warty, speckled or striped squashes—and again all delicious with subtle flavors you may never have tasted before. 

Know you’re eating healthy! Heirloom vegetables and fruits are rich in nutrition while grocery store varieties may be suffering in quality. Quoting from Scientific American, April 27, 2011: 
"A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition. "
As you know, heirlooms have never been subjected to these agribusiness practices. 
Of course, not all heirlooms grow equally well in all locations. Choose seeds whose produce can mature in the length of your growing season. The DTM (Date To Maturity) for most of Jefferson County is around 75 days but altitudes, microclimates within your site and weather anomalies certainly affect that opportune window of time. And although heirlooms have developed resistance to certain pests and diseases, all may not have been exposed to the same situations found at your site; you might choose to plant a variety of the type of vegetable you want in order to see which ones adapt to your garden most successfully. (If you wish to save seeds within this variety, however, you must use special techniques to avoid cross-pollination—which is another story for another time.)

You as a gardener growing heirlooms in your garden will perpetuate this vital tradition, will bring unique and nutritious fruits and vegetables to your table and cultivate a genetic diversity that has weakened during our lifetime.