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Grow heirloom vegetables and flowers this year

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By Dennis Morgeson

Many of us grew up with particular varieties of flowers and vegetables and we saved seeds from year to year. I was taught at an early age to save seeds to replant, particularly the “German” tomatoes that were passed down for several generations of which I no longer have seed to anymore. I stopped saving seeds when I realized I could just buy seeds from year to year. This would have been around the age of 15 or 16. I do wish someone would have held on to those tomato seeds, but we all just let them fall by the wayside. I wonder how many thousands of saved generational varieties have been lost is this manner? Luckily for us there were a few thoughtful souls that have made a mission, and yes, a business in saving old varieties for us to try and we can save the seeds after one purchase and get the same varieties back from year to year.

Heirlooms are vintage varieties preserved by passing down seed through generations. Generally 50 to 100 years old, heirlooms are always open pollinated and usually breed true to type. Their benefit is that they are sustainable! You can save seeds from year to year indefinitely! They were selected for flavor and quality, as well as ease of growth. 

One thing of note is that varieties were selected for a particular location and each year seeds saved from the best ones which allowed for varieties to be developed that grew better in particular locations such as Central Kentucky.

Prior to the development of commercial farming methodologies, heirlooms held a prominent place on the family farm. Today many of these old-time favorites are finding a niche at local farmers’ markets and roadside stands. (as well as most home gardens).

Many hybrid varieties are a cross between two other varieties to establish characteristics for mass marketing. Growers might cross tomato varieties for disease resistance, uniformity and solid texture to improve shipping stability.

Beans and cucumbers might grow low to the ground on bush type plants which allows for mechanized harvesting. The problem for homeowners and the positive for seed companies is that you can’t save hybrid seed and get the same variety back the following year like you can with heirlooms. Thus, you have to go back to the seed companies and purchase seeds yearly!

Many heirlooms require a different set of growing practices, however, not all. Tomatoes are often indeterminate and require staking (which most of us prefer). Beans and cucumbers are mostly vine varieties that need trellising. The fruits may be more susceptible to disease, however, I have grown a tremendous amount of heirloom tomatoes and have found many of them do have disease resistance. It’s just that seed companies don’t do the research to find out exactly what resistance they have because there isn’t as much money to be made in heirlooms as opposed to hybrids. 

However, with tomatoes, many of the heirlooms aren’t resistant to fusarium and verticillium wilt which is soil born. If you have those diseases in your soil you will definitely want to grow a hybrid with proven resistance.

Heirloom varieties were selected for generations for productivity and above all, taste, which means they don’t hold up to shipping and they don’t last long once harvested and this leaves poorly suited for commercial growers who sell to large wholesale markets. Smaller wholesale markets for heirloom growers include local restaurants, food co-ops and health food stores.

Selling seeds, transplants, and value-added products such as salsa or soup mix represent other income producing opportunities. The difference between hybrids and heirlooms arguably may be one of quality versus quantity. It is noteworthy that heirlooms almost always are ripened on the vine, where hybrids are often picked in the green stage. This may account for taste and texture differences in the end.  

Whether you want to grow heirlooms to sell or simply for the enjoyment of your own table, many sources exist for good heirloom seeds. Because they are open pollinated, heirloom lines are much easier than hybrids to maintain. Look for reputable catalog companies that offer product descriptions and history. The Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in Berea offers a wide variety of old-fashioned bean seeds. Kentucky heirloom tomato varieties include KY Beefsteak and Depp’s Pink Firefly. Some communities offer seed exchanges through their local farmer’s markets. You can also purchase heirlooms from reputable dealers such as Baker Creek and Seed Saver’s Exchange. These are the two I most often order from for programs.

Now that you have read an article about Heirloom varieties, why not join us for a look at gardening with Heirlooms at the Washington Extension Office Thursday evening at 6 p.m. You will leave the class loaded with information about growing heirlooms, varieties, and how to save seeds as well as at least 25 packets of heirloom vegetable and flower seeds to grow an entire sustainable heirloom garden. Please call the Washington County Extension Office to register to make sure we have enough seed for everyone. If you would like to come just for the information, that will be fine too and free!

One other thing I want to pass along is a daily double in programming and celebrating. On April 19, we are having a Rain Garden Workshop at the extension office beginning at 9 a.m. You will learn what a rain garden is, plants to grow, and the benefits of such a garden. At noon we will travel to the Farmers Market at the Depot and enjoy an Earth Day Celebration with the City of Springfield, New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, and some of the finest Washington County students. There will be a free lunch for all as well! At 1 p.m. those that attended the Rain Garden Workshop are encouraged to help us plant the renovated garden at the Farmers Market! If you are planning to attend the Rain Garden Workshop, please call the Washington County Extension Office to register and again it is free!

Happy gardening!