Grow history: plant heirloom fruits and vegetables

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Heirlooms are historic plant varieties cultivated by generations of gardeners. Cultivars must be more than 50 years old to be designated ‘heirloom’. Many heirloom fruits, vegetables and flowers have been around much longer.

Heirlooms have historic significance tied to people and place. I enjoy the stories behind the varieties almost as much as I enjoy growing them. Growing heirlooms is a way to participate in history, and share the story of gardeners that worked the soil before me.

Heirlooms are open-pollinated plants; ideal candidates for saving seed. Open-pollinated seed produces plants identical to parents. Growing heirlooms in the home garden helps preserve genetic diversity and biodiversity of plant species.

Heirloom fruit and vegetables have unique shapes, colors and flavors that you can’t find at the local food mart. I’ve grown hundreds of heirloom varieties throughout my gardening career. Here are 12 heirlooms to try this spring:

12 Heirlooms for the home garden

  1. Purple and green tomatillos, also known as husk tomatoes, are a tangy addition to raw salads and delicious roasted. They originated in pre-Columbian era Mexico.
  2. Parisienne Carrots are a petite, round cultivar from France. They grow great in clay soil, where long-root varieties don’t develop well.
  3. Moon and Stars Watermelons have unique looking rinds that are dark green (sky) with yellow spots (moon & stars). Fruit is super sweet. Seeds are easy to save.
  4. Strawberry Popcorn has three- to four-inch ears with dark red kernels that look like strawberries. Properly dried popcorn keeps well for years.
  5. Hill Country Red Okra pods are short and stout with streaks of red. This okra doesn’t get tough and stemy like other varieties.
  6. Brandywine Tomatoes are big, beautiful and juicy. This heirloom tomato is over 130 years old.
  7. Muncher cucumbers are spineless and bumpless. You can enjoy their crisp, cool flavor fresh or preserved as pickles.
  8. Yin Yang beans are a two-toned shelling bean. Don’t let the fact they are named after Chinese philosophy fool you, this bean variety is a 100-year-old American heirloom.
  9. Lemon squash looks like a lemon, but tastes like summer squash. This space saving heirloom grows great in containers.
  10. Most Ohio gardeners don’t plant peanuts- it’s a shame. I’ve had great luck growing them in USDA Hardiness Zone 6 and warmer. Carolina Black Peanuts pictured with Tennessee Red Valencia Peanuts.
  11. Red Oak Leaf Lettuce livens up the salad bowl. This lettuce variety is never bitter. It is ready to harvest at baby stage in just 30 days.
  12. Chinese 5 Color Peppers are my favorite peppers to pickle. Vibrant plants bear multiple colors of peppers. These hotties rate high on the Scoville heat scale.

Sourcing heirloom seed

Purchase heirloom seed from a reputable seed company. Buy seed that is packaged for the current growing season. Fresh seed produces better results because germination rates declines each year after seed has been packaged.

Several mail-order catalogs and online companies specialize in heirloom seeds.

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