In heirloom gardening, every seed has a story. Rich in flavor and history, heirloom vegetables have been passed down by generations of farming families and communities. At the Eminence Certified Organic Farm, we’re proud of our roots and incorporate our Hungarian history in all we do – even in the way we plant our vegetables! Knowing that the vine-ripened tomato plucked today is of the same variety as those harvested by previous generations of farmers is one of the ways we keep their legacy thriving.
What Are Heirloom Vegetables?
“Heirlooms” are fruits and vegetables whose seeds have been saved and planted over several generations. These rare species are renowned for unique color, texture and flavor profiles which have been preserved for decades.
On the Eminence Certified Organic farm, we save seeds for peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. This ensures their exceptional qualities are passed on from one growing season to the next. Infused in skin care products like Eminence Organics Cucumber Eye Gel, heirloom varieties of your favorite organic ingredients provide optimal nourishment for the skin.
What Are The Benefits Of Heirloom Gardening?
Heirloom fruits and vegetables differ from hybrid (or conventionally grown) plants in four key ways: Age, pollination, hardiness and quality.
Passed Down Over Generations
Many heirloom gardeners assert that a breed must be at least fifty years old to qualify as “heirloom,” but several varieties date back to the late 1800s. Generally, gardeners have selected, saved and passed down heirloom seeds for valuable characteristics like flavor, hardiness and/or adaptability.
Unlike hybrid varieties, heirloom plants rely on open-pollination by insects, birds and the wind to produce seeds. This type of pollination ensures that heirloom seeds produce plants that are true-to-type: Each plant will have the same size, growth habit, color and flavor as its predecessor.
Growing the same crop year after year improves its strength over time. Mark Macdonald of West Coast Seeds tells Alive: “Rather than simply storing seeds, the process of growing them over and over really impacts the genetics and the development—the evolution of the seed. You end up, oftentimes, with a much stronger crop.” Because of this, heirloom plants can build up an immunity to regional pests and stressors over time.
Heirloom vegetables are famous for their superior qualities and performance. While conventional farmers pick crops for transport when they are under-ripe, heirloom gardeners harvest plants at peak ripeness. For this reason, heirloom gardening tends to produce more flavorful fruit and vegetable varieties.
How To Start Heirloom Gardening
Are you ready to experience these benefits for yourself? Here is our step-by-step guide to growing heirloom vegetables in your own backyard.
Choose Heirloom Vegetables Wisely
Pick heirloom varieties that are easy to grow and do well in a range of climates. As heirloom expert Jere Gettle suggests, start with produce like beets, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce.
In addition to choosing heirloom seeds that are native to your particular region, Gettle encourages branching out. As well as regional varieties, try heirlooms that are unique to your cultural heritage or that elevate your favorite recipes!
Source Good Quality Seeds
You can purchase heirloom seeds from seed catalogs, seed exchanges and even farmers markets. While “purists” tend to favor seeds sourced through exchanges or passed down from other gardeners, online seed catalogs are an easy and convenient place to start. Additionally, we recommend choosing among companies that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge to not buy, sell or trade genetically modified seeds or plants.
Plant Your Crops Strategically
A healthy heirloom garden starts with healthy soil. In addition to using natural chicken and duck manure, Gettle recommends mulching with straw to fortify soil with plenty of organic matter. In a small garden, it is best to plant only one variety of a species at a time to prevent cross-pollination. However, if your heart is set on growing several varieties at once, it can be done – just be sure to space different types far enough apart. For legumes and lettuce in particular, grow no more than 10 plants of each variety at a time.
Let Heirloom Vegetables Fully Ripen
When it comes to harvesting and saving seeds, heirloom vegetables must ripen on the plant. But, how do you know if your crop is ripe? Gettle advises taking a sample: “If the seeds are soft, whitish, or hollow, they’re not ripe. You’ll have to wait longer before trying again.” Once your seeds have ripened, you can pluck the vegetable from the vine. Enjoy your flavorful produce in an heirloom recipe, and be sure to save a selection of seeds for future planting.
Save Seeds For Future Planting
Saving seeds is as simple as plucking, drying and storing them. Once you have harvested your crops, lay the seeds on a flat surface in a cool area to dry. When they are fully dry (usually between two and three weeks) store the seeds in well-marked bags, jars or envelopes. Most importantly, be sure to keep them in a cool, dark and dry space. Kept in these conditions, most seeds have a shelf life of three to five years before they need to be replanted.
Is heirloom gardening part of your family history? We’d love to hear how you keep time-honored traditions alive. Tell us in the comments below and join the conversation on Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Pinterest | LinkedIn | YouTube | G+.