I have four gorgeous new raised beds in the back yard (thanks, honey!) filled with rich organic soil, and I’m hankering to get some seedlings in the ground. If you are too, I urge you to take a look at heirlooms.
Before industrial agriculture begat monocrops, which are hybridized or engineered to be high producing and hardy, there were literally thousands of varieties of each vegetable. Often, the seeds of a tomato or a cucumber or a pepper would be handed down through a family from year to year (hence the term “heirloom”) so that within a small village, each family might be growing slightly different cultivars of the same vegetables.
Heirloom vegetables and fruits have been enjoying a renaissance both on restaurant menus and in backyard gardens. Here are a few things you should know if you want to join in too:
- By definition, heirloom varieties are open pollinated, which means that the plants are pollinated by bees and butterflies and the like. It also means that the seeds of a particular species will reproduce a similar plant the next year. Where it gets tricky is that open pollination also means that plants can cross-pollinate among families—broccoli with cabbage, limes with lemon, etc.—to create some funky hybrids unless you isolate the blooms of each. An easy solution, though, is just to pluck out any sprouts that clearly come from kissing cousins.
- Heirloom vegetables taste—and look—far more distinctive than mass-produced varieties. I’m smitten with big, meaty Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomatoes; deep gold with crimson striations. Candy-striped Chioggia Beets and scarlet Plum Purple Radishes are sweet, whimsical versions of otherwise staid vegetables. Experiment with several and find ones you like.
- When you plant heirlooms, you’re doing more than just cultivating a tasty plate. You’re helping preserve the genetic diversity of America’s—and the world’s—crops. As our society relies more and more on monoculture (growing one variety of crop), biodiversity is lost and, along with it, the ability for a species to fight off disease. Think of it this way; the more variation there is in the gene pool of a crop, the more help a plant has to pull from in evolving to fend off constantly-mutating diseases. If a crop is made up mainly of one variety, it can easily be overcome by the more nimble bacteria. And do know, this is an issue; almost 75% of our food’s genetic diversity has been lost over the past 100 years.
Check out Seed Savers Exchange for a dizzying catalog of heirloom fruits and vegetables. For more about saving heirloom varieties, see Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.
This week, if you’re planning your summer garden, be sure to seek out heirlooms.