Heirloom Veggies: Jewels of the Garden

With summer veggies at their peak, August is a delightful month of the year to be eating out of the garden.  Everything is amazingly colorful, juicy and delicious from the kaleidoscope of tomatoes to the many melon options. In my one acre market garden, I love experimenting with seed catalog choices for multi-color potatoes, beans of every hue and even tiny cucumbers that look like miniature watermelons. This splash of color and flavor is due largely to unique heirloom seeds. By definition, heirloom seeds are open-pollinated seeds of varieties that have been around for 50 years or more, often passed down through families.
Moon and Stars watermelon, Lazy Wife beans and Aunt Molly’s ground cherries are a few fun heirlooms that come with interesting stories of their origins. It is hard to beat the true tomato flavor of the heirlooms like Brandywine, Cherokee Purples and Green Zebras. Others like Dragon Tongue beans, Chiogga beets and Dragon purple carrots are just plain fun for their wild color patterns.

Fortunately, a new wave of seed companies are offering these old fashioned seeds so we can grow them even if our grandparents didn’t pass along a seed heritage. One of these companies is Seed Savers Exchange from Iowa and Lehman’s now carries their seed rack at the retail store in Kidron, Ohio. During my Thursday garden demonstrations at Lehman’s store, my table is just across from the colorful Seed Savers display and I love introducing folks to the fun world of heirlooms with real life examples. I always have a plate full of colorful tomatoes on hand and my tiny basket of Mexican Sour Gherkins, nicknamed Mouse Melons, is a wonderful conversation starter.

The heirlooms are not only a novelty but an important way to preserve genetic diversity and promote sustainability as you learn to save your own seeds. With open-pollinated varieties you can save seeds that will produce a plant similar to the mother plant. Hybrid plants on the other hand are a cross between two like species and seed saved from hybrids will not grow “true” but often revert back to characteristics of the grandparent plants. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are a whole new seed ball game produced by laboratory procedures that have many far reaching risks that are worth careful research.

Seed to Seed Book

To begin saving your own seed, you need to have a basic understanding of plant reproduction and learn the unique properties of each plant family. Some like beans and peas self pollinate before the flower opens and you simply allow some pods to mature till they are dry. Most plants that are pollinated by bees or wind need to have varieties isolated from each other to ensure purity. Once separated, lettuce can be allowed to bolt and you can collect the seeds from the dried flower heads. Others like tomatoes, benefit from a fermentation process to help clean the seed plus kills some diseases that the seed can carry. The best resource I have encountered for seed saving savvy is Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth which lists isolation distances, preparation methods and more for every garden plant imaginable.

So if you have open pollinated seeds already growing in your garden, let a few go to seed this season and collect them for next year’s garden or to share with friends. In passing on this age old tradition you will be creating a more sustainable world for you and future generations plus enjoying some marvelous colors and flavors along the way.

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