Heirloom Vegetables

When Historic is Better And When It Is Not

Like most home gardeners, I was first introduced to heirloom vegetables through tomatoes. The Amish Brandywine couldn’t be beat, I was told, and my pulse quickened at the thought of plump, misshapen beauties all summer long. I’ve grown a number of heirloom tomatoes and found some of them fickle. Some are more subject to disease, take forever to ripen and offer up a scant harvest. What I overlooked are the heirloom tomatoes that thrive in my garden given the soil, summer temperatures and dates to maturity.

heirloomsveggieI discovered ‘Jaune Flamme’ and ‘Principe Borghese’. The first is a medium-sized tomato with a bold taste. The second makes the finest dried tomato of any I’ve grown. So if Brandywine falls into the category of other finicky plants, many heirloom tomatoes have settled in with aplomb.

Crookneck squash is another winner. The yellow summer squash sold throughout many catalogues looks like a zucchini. The skin is tough and the inside pithy, with none of the flavor of the creamy interior of the yellow crookneck. Even more astonishing is that yellow crookneck squash is a hardy plant, studded with tiny squashes that appear throughout July and August. The newcomer is sleekly designed, perhaps for easy shipping and small seeds, but that’s not a home gardener’s concern. The old variety has flavor that I’ve not gleaned from its newer sibling. Yet fewer seed catalogues carry the old standby each year.

It now surprises me to see such a garden stalwart labeled an heirloom when the concept of heirloom is so hazy. In the world of antiques, the definition of an antique oak chest is 100 years old. In the world of gardening, heirlooms can be relatively recent, but out of favor. Butternut squash is sometimes called an heirloom, conjuring up images of Italian grandmothers stuffing gnocchi generations ago. In reality, butternut squash dates back to the 1940s, created in the United States. Whether or not it classifies as a hybrid, the butternut is classic and worth the room it takes to spread out.

So this is not to overlook the squash family as a great collection to be tapped. The old Hubbard, large, bumpy and delicately colored in an aqua green, is delicious and easy to grow. Other heirloom squashes like the buttercup, turban and banana boast a following. Amy Goldman, the author of The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Growers’ Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes and Gourds, also adores ‘Australian Blue’ and ‘Triamble’–somewhat rare finds. Although winter squashes may take up room, they come from hardy stock and many of these you’ll never find outside your garden.

Heirloom potatoes are surfacing in supermarkets. The Peruvian blue potatoes have taken chefs to new heights. Potatoes originated in the Andes and these blue potatoes do have roots there, but for the home gardener there is one serious drawback. “You just keep digging and digging and digging,” Connie Zweck, co-owner of the Zweck farm, admitted to me. Unless you enjoy sifting through soil looking for these purple nuggets, I’d suggest planting the potato you enjoy most.

Many are fun to grow, in varying sizes with knobs and oddball shapes. The russet potato so universally beloved was developed by Luther Burbank, a true North American plant genius. He scanned veggies for interesting plant mutations and often propagated a rare find. With heirlooms, we can turn back time and reconstruct what Burbank and the ancient Peruvians farmed many years ago.

Lettuces and greens are overlooked in the heirloom definition, except for ‘Red Sails,’ which is often promoted as an heirloom. ‘Red Sails,’ a red-tinged leaf lettuce is lovely, but it’s no more heirloom than romaine, which is an ancient lettuce. Romaine dates back to Roman cooks, and remains a sturdy lettuce for Colorado. It can take some summer heat. Although it needs a longer span of time than most lettuces, it will keep longer, too, and provide a harvest that can be extended. This alone is a boon for most home gardeners.

Many greens are ancient; kale is another example. Although these rarely are labeled as heirlooms, they come with a genetic tenacity worth getting to know and love.

Peppers have hit the heirloom labels with nearly the same popularity of tomatoes. But this is a case where heirloom often is better than hybrids. The fleshy red, orange and yellow bell peppers in our stores are grown in greenhouses where the temperature, water and nutrients are carefully measured. Growing such hybrid specialties in the garden may leave you disappointed.

My large pepper hybrids take a long time to reach maturity. And, by the time they do birds have pecked holes and pests have gnawed away at them. Most are covered with brown and mottled areas. Tom Zweck grows an astonishing variety of peppers at his Longmont farm, including the finicky large bells. But his soil, sun and water are near perfection.

In contrast, heirloom peppers closer to old-fashioned peppers, like ancho (poblano) and a myriad of smaller sweet and hot peppers grow quickly and vigorously with an astonishing bounty. I’ve grown Caribbean, sweet, anaheim, ancho—nearly any pepper I can find. Most are satisfying for the home gardener and few peppers are tasteless. Try Hungarian heirloom peppers for small, sweet and beautiful veggies.

Some, like the anaheim and ancho, which typically are roasted for full flavor, can be roasted and frozen throughout the winter with little fuss. The flavor freezes beautifully. Take one or two from a freezer bag and you’ll never have to buy peppers again in midwinter. Some of these peppers are quite old in their native climes, shaping cuisine for centuries.

So while vegetables may be separated by heirloom versus newer hybrid varieties, eventually, gardeners will be attracted to taste. We care about taste, hardiness and yield. In some cases, the hybrids will win out. If you discover diseases in your soil, hybrids bred to be immune to wilts or rusts may be the best choice. But don’t let wonderful heirlooms disappear. And don’t assume, as I did, that one disappointment with an heirloom taints the entire family. Home gardeners have the power to save the overlooked, underappreciated and unloved. If we ask seed suppliers to keep us in mind, wonderful heirlooms will be around for years to come.

Typical heirloom seed suppliers:

  • Abundant Life Seed Foundation, P.O. Box 772, Port Townsend, WA, 98368
  • Seeds of Change, P.O. Box 15700, Santa Fe, NM, 87506
  • Territorial Seed Company, P.O. Box 157, Cottage Grove, OR, 97424
  • Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, Monticello, PO. Box 316, Charlottesville, VA, 22902