Anyone who hates biting into that tasteless baseball known as the supermarket tomato brightens up upon slurping up a juicy "heirloom" tomato. Heirloom vegetables sound fancy but are simply the kinds of vegetables everyone ate before the days of mass-produced produce. These are veggies that look and taste the way nature intended, and some come with old-fashioned names and fun stories you can tell friends if you grow an heirloom plant on your patio or in your garden. Example: The "Mortgage Lifter" beefsteak tomato weighs over one pound apiece and, according to legend, was developed in the 1930s by M. C. Byles of Logan, West Virginia, who sold the plants for a buck apiece... and paid off his mortgage in six years.
Heirloom seeds essentially are seeds that come from plant varieties introduced at least 50 years ago. Like an oak dresser or wedding ring, they're passed down within a family through the generations. Some are passed from gardener to gardener, or sold by garden shops and seed companies, such as VictorySeeds.com, Rareseeds.com and SeedsTrust.com. Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seeds/SEARCH are among seed banks that have prevented the extinction of heirloom fruits and vegetables; gardeners can buy seeds from their catalogs to grow them at home. For example, the Soldacki tomato (sold by SeedSavers), is a Polish heirloom brought to Cleveland, Ohio, around 1900; its pinkish-red fruits weigh up to one pound.
While heirloom tomatoes grab lots of attention due to their superior flavor compared to mass-marketed industrially grown competitors, a wide range of other produce seeds come in heirloom varieties, including watermelons, onions, bell peppers, kale, okra, leeks, tomatillos, garlic, carrots, cucumbers, squash, herbs, beans and a red-colored strawberry popcorn. At least two French heirloom lettuces -- Rouge d'Hiver Lettuce and Cracoviensis Lettuce - were described in M.M. Vilmorin's "The Vegetable Garden" way back in 1885. No need to eat boring iceberg lettuce!
Backyard organic gardeners are trying their hand at growing these gifts from grandmother's garden, and it's a good thing, too. Heirloom vegetables keep our food supply diverse, and reduce our dependency on monoculture farming and hybridization. Plant breeders use old varieties to breed resistance to diseases and pests into modern crops.
You'll get your just rewards by biting into tastier, hardier historic fruits and vegetables.
For more info:
Ask for heirloom seeds at local garden shops, since theyll carry varieties that are most certain to grow in your area. Online, its fun to browse odd offerings such as "Grandma Eincks Dill" at SeedSavers.org.
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