Garden season is right around the corner

Published 5:22 pm Saturday, February 18, 2012

Spring is right around the corner and my husband and I are excited to start our garden.

The other day we received our heirloom, organic seeds in the mail and set up our indoor grow area where we will start our plants. This is an experimental project for us, as we’ve never started our garden solely from seed before, so we will see how it goes! We love the flavor of heirloom vegetables and believe that they have a superior taste to many hybrids. What exactly is an heirloom vegetable? Well, while people have been talking about heirloom vegetables for more than a decade, an agreement on exactly what an heirloom variety is has yet to be reached. So far, experts in the field agree that heirloom vegetables are old, open-pollinated cultivars. In addition, these varieties also have a reputation for being high quality and easy to grow.

Just how old a cultivar has to be to be an heirloom is open to discussion. Some authorities say heirloom vegetables are those introduced before 1951, when modern plant breeders introduced the first hybrids developed from inbred lines. While there are good reasons to use 1951 as a cut-off, many heirloom gardeners focus on varieties that date from the 1920s and earlier. A few, especially those re-creating World War II Victory Gardens, add introductions from the 1920s, 1930s, and the early 1940s. While some first-rate open pollinated cultivars were introduced after 1951, few gardeners include them with the heirlooms.

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While many of the varieties are 100 to 150 years old, there are some heirlooms that are much older. For example, experts think certain heirlooms are actually traditional Native American crops that are pre-Colombian. Other heirlooms are old European crops, some of which have been in cultivation for almost four hundred years. Still other heirlooms trace their ancestries to Africa and Asia. They too may be much older than records indicate, but distance and language make it difficult to trace their histories.

When heirloom gardeners refer to open-pollination, they mean that a particular cultivar can be grown from seed and will come back “true to type.” In other words, the next generation will look just like its parent. For example, plant a ‘Brandywine’ tomato, let some of the fruit mature and collect the seed, process it properly, and store it well. The next year, plant the seed and it will grow another ‘Brandywine’ tomato. Seed saving is a simple enough process, and gardeners have been using it for generations.

Now, however, there are more and more vegetables that will not come back “true to type.” For example, plant nearly any F-1 hybrid tomato, and go through the steps described above to save seed. The next spring, plant it, and see what happens. The seed may not even germinate, since it may be sterile. If it does sprout, the young plants will probably not have many of the characteristics that made its parent noteworthy. While hybrids have many outstanding qualities, the ability to reproduce themselves is clearly not one of them.

Last year, we grew three different varieties of heirloom tomatoes and they all had a superior taste, texture and were extremely easy to grow. This year we are trying different types of tomatoes and growing all of our vegetables from heirloom seed. Who knows, you may even find our heirloom vegetables at the market this year.