Sowing old seeds: Heirloom gardening explained

Dahlias and daffodils. Tulips and crocuses. Wild mustard and tomatoes. They’re all common enough in gardens across the country, but the heirloom varieties are the ones that can help a gardener bring small pieces of the past into the 21st century.

What is heirloom gardening? Definitions differ slightly, depending on who’s doing the defining, but the most common is a plant variety whose seeds or bulbs have been raised and preserved in a family, commercial seed company or by a seedsman, and handed down from generation to generation.

Why should you consider growing heirlooms? “Heirloom gardens connect us with our past, both horticulturally as a nation and personally, as in an aunt’s favorite flower that she grew every year,” said Marilyn Barlow, owner of Select Seeds in Union, Conn. “Heirloom gardening is a more natural approach to gardening by using open-pollinated varieties which set seed that will next year grow plants that look like the parents. Heirloom gardens have a wealth of varieties in them and that increases the diversity of our land.”

Hybrid plants can be sterile, Barlow pointed out, meaning they do not set seed and will not produce offspring similar to the parents, resulting in inferior plants.

Some of the favorite heirloom seeds and bulbs that Barlow said are in demand include poppies of all kinds, Fragrant Delight heliotrope, nasturtiums, tiger lilies and rare geraniums, one of her specialties.

Vegetable varieties also are popular, especially those that are space savers, such as runnerless squash, smaller corn and bush cucumbers, according to Mike Dunton, owner of Victory Seed Company in Molalla, Ore.

“Tomatoes are huge,” he said. “There’s almost a cult surrounding tomatoes. And anyone can grow them since there are tomato varieties available and suited for most tastes and most gardening conditions, even dwarf plants that apartment dwellers or folks with small patio gardens can raise.”

Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in Mansfield, Mo., believes that people “have become tired of modern varieties bred for mass production and shipping that taste like Styrofoam. There is a lot of satisfaction in growing a variety that Thomas Jefferson or the Aztecs grew.”

Some of the most popular varieties sought from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed include the Brandywine tomato, a variety that traces its heritage to the Amish of Pennsylvania in the 1880s; the Cherokee purple tomato, a Tennessee heirloom said to have been grown by the Cherokees; and the moon and stars watermelon, a 1920s heirloom with deep green fruit covered with bright yellow-colored spots.

Scott Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Mich., has found that heirloom gardening is part of the movement of historic preservation of buildings.

“People are interested in plants of the past, especially those with historic houses who are creating landscapes for them, and places like museum gardens,” Kunst said.

Old House Gardens specializes in heirloom flower bulbs; its most popular bulbs for planting in the fall are daffodils.

“Part of their popularity is that they are good perennials and return and multiply in many climates across the country,” Kunst pointed out. “Deer don’t eat them and animals don’t bother them, which is a big plus. It’s like having an antique that nobody can break.”

Tulips are classic spring flowers, Kunst noted, but a lot of the United States gets too much rainfall which means tulips don’t always return very well. “Daffodils on the other hand are very happy in many gardens throughout the 50 states,” he added.

For spring planting, Kunst’s most popular bulbs are dahlias. “That kind of surprised me, but once I started growing dahlias, I got the bug myself,” Kunst said. “They begin to bloom exuberantly when summer starts to cool down a bit and are great for cut flowers.”

Kevin Dahl, director of Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Ariz., thinks heirloom vegetables provide a gardener more choices of types that have been developed for taste, rather than for being easy to ship and sell.

“The difference is best experienced directly, like the taste of a homegrown tomato compared to one store-bought,” Dahl said. “Heirloom seeds, unlike most commercial hybrids, allow the gardener to save seeds from one season to the next.”

Heirloom tomatoes are all the rage at farmer’s markets and supermarkets, Dahl pointed out.

“And rightly so,” he said. “Their diversity of shapes, colors, textures and flavors add a lot to salads and tomato dishes.”

Some of the heirloom seeds that Native Seeds offers include the Tohono O’odham domesticated devil’s claw, the Hopi black dye sunflower, the O’odham dipper gourd, the Tohono O’odham I’itois onion, the Chimayo chile and the Hopi yellow watermelon.

Depending on the purveyor and the type of heirloom seed or bulb, prices vary widely, from $2.35 and up for a packet of seeds to $15 for rare tulip bulb that can trace its roots to 1620.

What are the trends in heirloom plants?

“The tropical look, featuring bold foliage is again popular, 125 years after its first heyday in the Victorian era,” said Barlow of Select Seeds. “Also cannas, castor beans, colocasia, coleus and brugmansia.”

Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed thinks that anything unusual is “in,” like tomatoes with green and yellow stripes, yellow radishes or purple bell peppers.

“People are looking for varieties that are unusual, beautiful, tasty and loaded with nutrition, as scientists continue to show many of the older types are superior to modern commercial varieties,” he said.

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