By Mara Higdon
I grow food because I love to eat. And because I love to taste the taste of fresh vegetables I tend to grow more heirlooms. Heirlooms have such a wonderful flavor to them and are increasing in popularity these days for many reasons. Heirloom tomatoes taste like tomatoes should and are much more flavorful than store-bought tomatoes. Many heirlooms, in my opinion, are natures’ works of art. You may see ripe, green and yellow striped tomatoes, yellow cucumbers, blue warty squash, and spotted watermelons.Heirloom vegetables are not readily available at your local grocer since many heirlooms’ harvest do not package, ship, or store well. Therefore they must either be purchased from a local grower through a farmer’s market or you can grow your own. And, with the increase in price of food these days, growing your own food may be an appealing option for many.
But what exactly makes an heirloom an heirloom? The plant must be an open-pollinator. Ideally, this means that if you plant a pepper, save the seeds, and plant those seeds again your peppers will look the same every time you plant them. Hybrid varieties, for example, do not produce “true to type”. Open pollinator. . . you’re a shoo-in!However, a debatable characteristic about heirlooms that gardeners love to argue about age and history.
Most plant historians agree that if a seed was grown before the 1950s, when hybrid seeds were introduced, then you may term that variety an heirloom. But there are even older varieties that have been tied to early civilizations in the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East among other places. Should those be included? Some people say that all old varieties should be included in the heirloom category. Others exclude old varieties that were made popular later on by seed catalogs in the late 1900s. Then, there are the seed savers who believe that only seeds passed down from gardener to gardener over the generations can be termed heirloom. You can take your pick.
If you are interested in growing heirlooms, here are a few to try. If you are looking for a source for seeds try Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seeds of Change, and Victory Seeds are all good companies. Locally, for seeds and seedlings, you are welcome to come down any Saturday (9am – 1pm), to Gateway Greening’s outdoor office at Bell Garden. We have free seeds and sell many heirloom seedlings for $.75 per three pack.
- Chioggia is a white and red ringed beet I really enjoy. It has a slightly sweet, mild flavor. Great for salads!
- Romanesco Italia is extremely tasty and has a unique spiral shape to the florets. It’s worth waiting 75 to 100 days to maturity.
- Snowball is a self-blanching cauliflower that freezes well and takes little effort to grow. Needing only 60 days to maturity, it’s in and out of the garden in time to use the space for succession planting. I put in a second crop for fall harvest.
- Anna Russian – This is an early variety of tomato that is ready in 65 days. It is indeterminate with 3″ heart shaped, pink superbly flavored fruit. From Beverly Hillenius of Oregon, whose grandfather rec’d. seeds from a Russian Immigrant years ago. Produces well over a long season.
- Green Zebra – Another indeterminate with fruit in 75 days. The 3 oz tomatoes are chartreuse with dark green stripes. Sweet, spicy flavor. Developed by Tom Wagner.
- Missouri Pink Love Apple – A large pink beefsteak tomato ready in 78 days.
- Moon and Stars is a medium-sized oval dark green melon covered with pea-sized bright yellow “stars” and usually one larger “moon”. The fruits have sweet pink flesh and brown seeds. Foliage is also spotted. 110 days.
Mara Higdon is the Program Director at Gateway Greening. They focus on community development throughout the St Louis area.