Customize Your Garden With Heirlooms

As a landscape designer, I am always looking for beauty in my surroundings- beautiful fabrics, furnishings, spaces, and colors are really important to me. Extend that to my vegetable garden and I also want beautiful vegetables and fruit decorating my garden bed to eat. Heirlooms deliver on that in spades! Instead of the usual mealy Florida grown tomatoes available in the grocery store, I grow a rainbow array of veggies to decorate my plate.

Array of heirloom tomatoes
I grew this heirloom “Mushroom” tomato this year
Heirloom harvest

Yes, it takes a lot of effort and sweaty hard work during some hot summer days. But when I pick those basketfuls of colorful vegetables and bring them in the kitchen, it is worth it. Heirlooms have been saved for decades and sometimes centuries because they are the best performers in home gardens. They haven’t been grown so that they ship more efficiently and last longer on the grocery shelf, but because they look good and taste good.

Variety of heirloom peppers
Beautiful heirloom tomato
I grew this “speckled trout lettuce”, an Heirloom from Austria, in containers because it was so pretty

Seed Choices

Shopping for vegetable seeds nowadays means either picking from modern hybrids created by crossing two selected varieties, or heirloom veggies which are open pollinated, saved and handed down through family generations. Usually costing less than hybrids, heirlooms have been shown through recent research to be more nutritious if not as prolific as hybrids. I will take the downside of less prolific with my heirloom varieties if they are tastier.

Heirloom tomatoes are $2.99 a pound at a farmers market

Heirloom Advantages

Selecting and saving seeds from the most successful heirlooms in your garden over the years, the more the seeds will adapt to your local conditions. Plus you save money. Many hybrid seed packets range in price from $4 to $10 and sometimes you get very few seeds, with packets containing just 10 seeds in some cases.  Connecting with history is another great reason to grow heirlooms.

Chiogga beets hail from northern Italy in the 19th century

Boston Marrow

Many heirlooms go back for hundreds of years and can be traced back to original growers. For example, the Boston Marrow winter squash has quite a history attached to it. Foodtank a food think tank publication  says this about Boston Marrow: “Precisely when and how the Boston Marrow became domesticated in America is unclear. However, Fearing Burr, the author of Field & Garden Vegetables of America, was the first person to document the Boston Marrow squash in 1831. In his book, Burr mentions that Mr. J.M Ives of North Salem, Massachusetts, received the seeds of the Boston Marrow from a friend who lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the story goes, Mr. Ives then distributed the seeds to members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society who, he claims, had never seen the specimen previously. Mr. Ives also mentions that his friend whom he received the seeds from, had in fact, been given the seeds from Buffalo gardeners who got them from a tribe of Native Americans that visited the area; and this is apparently how it all begun.”

Boston marrow in amongst an award winning veggie assortment at a farm fair

Read my post Move Over Butternut-Try Boston Marrow for the custardy pie recipe and more information on this heirloom.

I haven’t grown Boston Marrow yet as I only have room for several vining varieties of squash but it is on my list. For now I buy it at Farmer’s Markets.

Boston Marrow is sold by Burpee
Boston Marrow pie
Heirloom Boston Marrow makes a delicious pie

Farmer’s Markets

Farmers Markets are a great source of heirlooms
Seen at a farmer’s market, this peanut pumpkin fascinated me

Talking to growers at farmers markets is a great way to discover heirlooms and listen to their stories about their beautiful produce.

Trolling farmers markets is a great way to pick up heirlooms

Growers that I have talked to are only too eager to share information about the heirlooms that they grow and you can pick up some vegetables and save the seeds after consuming it! I did that with a Marina Di Chiogga winter squash that I admired at a farmers market and saved the seed to plant in the spring. Now I am overrun with this delicious winter squash!

Dozens of these Marina Di Chioggas are growing in my vegetable garden this summer
I am growing Porcelain Doll Pumpkin this year also which is a hybrid. Unfortunately I can’t save this seed as it won’t grow true to type like an heirloom would

Saving Seeds

An advantage of heirlooms is that you can save the seed from year to year instead of shelling out money each spring for new seeds. For a great book on saving seeds as well as starting, check out Julie Thompson-Adolph’s excellent book Starting & Saving Seeds

Saving seeds can be as easy as removing pumpkin seeds from the flesh, washing and drying them, to fermenting tomato seeds in water for several days to remove the gelatinous gel coating the seeds. Julie will walk you through the process of saving all kinds of seed from your garden and even how to hand pollinate corn for the best seed set. Flowers and herbs are also covered and I was interested to see she had a tutorial on making seed tape from toilet paper!

Seed Exchanges

Another great source of heirlooms are local seed exchanges. Everyone brings their cleaned seeds and lays them out for people to pick from and hopefully you will get some varieties that you want and things that you have never seen before.

Seed Exchange

In the early spring, seed exchanges pop up and I found this one at my local library and came home with lots of good stuff.

At my local library

Vegetables aren’t the only heirlooms that I grow. Heirloom annuals are also high on my list to plant in the spring. Go to my post on Heirloom Annuals.

Corn Cockle or Agrostemma is an heirloom that I will be starting this spring

For seeds of this, go to Renee’s Gardens.

Leave a Reply