Some of my earliest memories of childhood are associated with the vegetable garden that sprawled at the back of our property. What would now be known as a trendy suburban "market garden" was just a fact of life for us. We each had our specialty-my sister was responsible for the corn, my brother's task was lettuce, and I was the proud purveyor of the cucumbers. And with my Dad's oversight, we all lent a hand with the fascinating array of tomatoes in multiple sizes, shapes, and colors that he planted.
Though we didn't know it then, we were growing "heirlooms," which are all the rage these days. Heirloom produce is featured everywhere, from farmers markets to health food stores to trendy eateries. But what exactly constitutes an heirloom fruit or vegetable?
There is some debate about specifics. Some maintain that a specific variety must be at least 100 years old; others insist that it must be an actual "heirloom"-grown from seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation. But most everyone agrees on two points: the variety must predate 1951 (when hybrid plants and seeds became generally available), and it must be "open-pollinated" and bred true to type.
Regardless of your favored definition, there are a number of reasons why you should seek out these old-school fruits and veggies:
Flavor. Heirloom produce features a wider range of flavors and textures than the hybrid stuff, which is bred for uniformity of appearance and ease of transport. And because heirlooms are allowed to reach maturity before being picked, their nutritional content is often superior as well.
The Environment. Preserving the vast array of plants that have all but disappeared from commercial agriculture maintains essential biodiversity. Thousands of varieties might go extinct if not for the efforts of farmers who promote and grow heirlooms. And these original cultivars are often uniquely suited to their environment, needing far fewer pesticides and chemicals to thrive.
Culture. Heirlooms contribute to a sense of history and tradition that passes down from generation to generation. And seeds are powerful symbols of regeneration and life in most mythologies and religions.
Variety. Heirlooms come in an array of hues, shapes, and flavors. There are hundreds of different tomatoes, from chocolate-shouldered to zebra-striped to sunset-blushed. (My favorite is the Mortgage Lifter, a huge, juicy monster developed by a radiator salesman during the Depression, which was so popular it enabled him to pay off his mortgage.) Heirloom melons such as Tigger, Mother Mary's Pie, and Eden's Gem offer ambrosial sweetness. And heirloom carrots come in every color of the rainbow-sure to entrance and delight the kids, and encourage them to get their daily dose of vegetable goodness.
I encourage you to jump on the heirloom bandwagon without further ado; the past is the future, and everybody wins.
Did you know?
Purple carrots taste sweeter than their orange cousins; the pale variety has the most mild flavor of the bunch.
Grow Your Own
If you're interested in starting your own heirloom garden-or even just supporting the movement-visit the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange at seedsavers.org for more information.