We use heirloom varieties for tomatoes, probably over a dozen varieties. We use a couple heirloom varieties of lettuce, beans, some peppers and kale. We use a wide variety of heirloom seeds, but obviously since we have so many different varieties of tomatoes, they are my favorite.
This is true even though the typical heirloom tomato can be ugly. Others, though, can be really beautiful in their shapes and color. Some of mine are two to three colors with green stripes or a yellow blush or a pink blush. The flavor is why I like them so much. There is just no comparison between a hybrid and an heirloom tomato. The heirlooms are always delicious even if by the typical standards of tomatoes, they are not always beautiful.
Brandywine is my favorite, because it has the best flavor and it’s just huge. You can cover a whole sandwich in just one slice. That’s pretty awesome. Now my mom is using the heirlooms in her homemade tomato sauce. And that is something that every one of my siblings makes sure that they get some of. We’re all stocked up on that. My mom’s been making sauce since we were kids, but the heirlooms make it that much better.
For lettuce, I really like the heirloom black-seeded simpson. It is the easiest one to grow and the color is phenomenal. It’s a really bright green lettuce that gets humongous. This is great for kids especially because it’s so easy to grow. Also, it grows so fast into such a big plant. So that makes it fun for kids. Another great heirloom variety is the new fire red; it’s a red leaf lettuce. It’s good for flavor. You get that color contrast which looks nice in a salad, but you also have higher amounts of nutrients in red leaf lettuce.
When it comes to beans, I like the Valentino for a reason that gardeners would probably appreciate. This green bush bean produces smaller amounts of beans over a longer period of time. Since I am not using machinery to pick and I’m selling these retail, it is much better to have something that is easier to harvest and endures throughout the season. Many gardeners would rather go out and get some beans for their dinner over the course of the summer than have a plant that produces them all at once.
We also use hybrids for some crops, because they have the advantage of being less prone to bacterial and fungal diseases. And heirlooms may not yield as much, but as with the beans, they will yield more over time. That is a great advantage of heirloom plants which are indeterminate. That means that they will continue to grow as long as you can keep them healthy. Determinate varieties only grow so tall and produce so much in contrast.
The best part of heirlooms is that they are all tried and true. Any heirloom has been used over a long period of time. So my recommendations work for me and my purposes and tastes. But I would really encourage our readers to try any heirloom variety. There are so many reputable companies out there now. And trying new varieties is all part of the fun of gardening. Then you get to save the seeds and use them again next year.
A Story in a Seed
Everyone loves a good story, and in the history of heirloom seeds, there are many. There are stories of trials, tribulations, journeys, family heritage and overwhelming success harbored within them.
Heirloom seeds are known as “living antiques” as they are passed down from one generation to the next. Seeds are typically saved due to their resistance to pests, their flavor complexity, unique color or shape characteristics and general hardiness.
The most common definition of “heirloom” includes fruit, flower or vegetable varieties that were being grown before World War II. The use of chemical fertilizers was not common practice. Furthermore, this predates the upsurge of hybrids, especially in the vegetable market. So these early gardeners were at the mercy of weather and disease. Breeding resistant varieties was their main defense. The use of manure and mulch [read: “organic gardening”], was standard practice for home gardeners, who accepted risk and variation from weather and disease just as farmers had to. And the heirlooms were generally more flavorful than the hybrids, so sustaining them became its own movement.
And they are sustainable by nature, because heirloom varieties are open-pollinated. This means that they carry most the characteristics of the original plant. This is not true with hybrids. In fact, the main downfall of hybrid seeds is that they do not “reproduce true” in the second generation. Otherwise, there is nothing “unnatural” about hybrids. GMOs, on the other hand, are created in laboratories and they are sometimes cross-bred outside of their kingdom. For some GMOs pesticide is inserted into every plant.
With heirloom seeds, however, gardeners simply saved seed from their family gardens from year to year. Then they shared their seeds, or they traveled and their seeds traveled with them. Some of these varieties, or at least their stories, date back centuries.
Take the Crapaudine Beet. This heirloom is commonly recognized as the oldest beet variety known, dating back 1,000 years. Although its look is prehistoric. The crapaudine is colored like the average beet, but long like a carrot and covered in bark-like skin. It can be difficult to grow, but it is said to be well worth the trouble as the taste is phenomenal.
Then there’s the Cherokee Trail of Tears Pole Bean. During their winter death march through the Smoky Mountains to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, the Cherokee carried this hardy pole bean variety which produces shiny, jet black beans in their pockets. The struggle for survival is often part and parcel of the seeds that were saved.
One of the most popular, probably because it’s a lot more uplifting, is the tale of the Mortgage Lifter Tomato heirloom variety. An ingenious radiator repairman in West Virginia had cross-pollinated several of the largest breeds of tomato available to him and created this tasty and exceeding large variety. Some tomatoes weighed up to 4 lbs. They became so popular that people would drive far distances to purchase them. He charged them a hefty fee for the tomatoes and a pretty penny (by the standards of the 1930s) for the seedlings. And within six years, MC “Radiator Charlie” Byles paid off his mortgage with the proceeds.
The best story of all of the heirloom varieties however is probably not one that you will ever hear. The very best story may be in the one that heirlooms tell your palette.