The Magic of Heirlooms

Reap the many benefits of timeless region-specific veggies, by Heather Lamb, in Birds & Blooms, June/July 2016, pp. 28-31.

Challenging climates have nothing on heirlooms. These classic open-pollinated plants not only connect us to the long history of gardening because of their age. Over time, they’ve adapted to local conditions, making them solid choices for your backyard. Gardeners should select heirloom varieties from their region or an area with similar conditions to get the most out of the plants.

Heirloom Basics

Tor Janson, collection curator for the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org), compares these plants to family keepsakes because the seeds are passed down through generations. Heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means they are pollinated naturally by insects, birds, humans and the wind. They also self-and-cross-pollinate.

The seeds usually stay true to type over time. This makes their behavior in the garden easier to predict than that of hybrids, which are the result of cross-breeding of two varieties. Hybrids rarely stay true in successive generations.

“Generally, heirloom varieties that have been grown over generations in a particular area tend to work well their,” Janson says.

The Hot and Humid Southeast

Long growing seasons with high heat and humidity are hard on a lot of vegetables. “Many crops can’t cope,” says Randel Agrella, seed production manager for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com). Selecting the right plants is one way to deal with the heat, but Agrella also suggests gardening from fall to spring instead of during the summer.

Switching the growing season will have the most impact on tomatoes, a crop affected by sustained high temperatures. Agrella recommends eastern European tomato varieties, which develop full flavor in cool weather, for late-summer planting. For spring planting, try southern European types that ripen in the heat.

Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (southernexposure.com) an heirloom resource for Southern gardeners, says smaller tomato varieties tend to be less demanding and better withstand high heat. Wallace particularly like Cherokee Purple tomatoes, which the company introduced to the seed-buying market.

Beyond tomatoes, there’s a wealth of veggies that thrive in the heat and humidity of the Southeast, including okra, watermelon, pole beans, collards and bell peppers.

Veggie picks by Climate

Hot and Humid, Tomatoes: Late-summer planting: Belarusian Heart, Black Prince, Brave General, Emerald Apple, Mushroom Basket, Stupice; spring: Comstock Sauce ‘n Slice, Costoluto Genovese, Cour di Bue, Pantano Romanesco; summer: Bonny Best, Cherokee Purple, Eva Purple Bell, Placero.

Buying Heirloom Seeds

Many seed companies and seed banks specialize in heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. When buying, look for sources that support the mission of seed saving or those that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge from the Council for Responsible Genetics.

Tomato with two thumbs up

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Lorraine here to say that other regions were documented. Because I live in Southeast Texas, I focused on that information. ~~ Frankly, I did not recognize the names of many varieties.

See my other blog messages: Growing Tomatoes from Seed to Harvest and A peek at my tomato garden. Below: A current “peek” at my plants.

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Look closeLots of tomatoes

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