Heritage is really about leaving a legacy. A big theme in gardening now is the use ofÂ Heritage Seeds or Heritage Trees, or what Americans call ‘heirloom‘ plants or trees. Â Keeping these old seed breeds alive means we can introduce them to other gardeners, and have tasty, strong plants.
In our garden we have old Irish apple varieties. Basically, they are varieties that went out of fashion. Supermarkets trained peopleâ€™s taste buds to certain varieties. When people had a garden and took a notion to planting an apple tree, they thought â€˜I like Coxâ€™s Pippinsâ€¦or Macintoshâ€¦â€™ Or whateverâ€¦Yet there are equally tasty ancestral varieties to those that have become supermarket brands.
The greater the variety of plants grown, the greater the food security for a region. Ireland is a salutary example. The Potato Blight that ravaged the land and her people and their descendants happened because of reliance on monoculture. The Irish peasantry used the Lumper spud variety almost exclusively.Â The Lumper could not stand up to the blight spores, the potatoes rotted, and the people starved.
Tony and I plant at least four types of potato. I only routinely plant one variety, Cara, every year, with three other varieties we haven’t grown before. I explore the seed bank. Some are more blight resistant than others. Some canâ€™t resist eel worm. But I never bank on one variety for a crop.Â I use the same rule for tomatoes. I have even planted a kale variety called “Good King Henry”Â that has been collected by Irish Seed Savers.
We can all help save our planetâ€™s diversity by sowing a few of those â€˜ancestralâ€™ or heritage varieties. Seeds and plants (think old roses) that have been bred and saved in certain regions tend to be hardier as they have adapted to those specific conditions.
Our ancestry is not just genealogy. We may not always have a lot of information about how those ornaments on the family tree lived. But if you plant some heritage seeds and eat the fruits of your gardening labor you share a bit of how your forebearers lived and get a literal taste of their daily life. Putting antique or heritage produce on the dinner table is a most intimate way to get to know your own past.