Grandma’s favorite vegetables are making a comeback in the garden, and showing up in trendy restaurants and farmers’ markets alike. And antique flowers are flourishing far away from the gates of English cottages. Here’s a look at how these vintage seeds might fit into your garden this year.
What’s an heirloom?
The title applies to any seeds of plants that have been in cultivation for at least 50 years and which are open-pollinated. That means Mother Nature did all the work, untouched by the agricultural science of hybridization. Instead, gardeners saved seeds to regrow year after year, as opposed to purchasing new commercial seeds every season. That’s why heirlooms have survived for so many generations: Somebody’s landscape-loving ancestor tucked a few favorite seeds into cold storage for another season, another gardener. Now it’s your turn.
What’s so special about heirlooms?
“People who love their heirlooms want to grow the same plants that have been grown for hundreds of years,” says Peter Hatch, director of gardens and grounds at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. “There’s a nostalgia factor. They like that connection with our forefathers and a real tangible link to our past.” Hatch should know: At Monticello, his staff grows hundreds of historic flowers and vegetables in the estate gardens.
But when discussing heirlooms, vegetables tend to get the spotlight. Take heirloom tomatoes, which generally have thinner skins and are juicier and more flavorful than anything you buy at the store. They can be wonderfully diverse, growing in all shapes, sizes, and colors—yellow, orange, pink, purple-black, and even green with stripes. When you compare them to the red, perfectly round variety typically found in a produce bin, there is no question as to which is superior.
How are heirlooms different from hybrids?
In some gardening circles, there’s a bit of a backlash against hybrid plants, which are artificially created by crossing two parent plants with desirable traits—superior disease resistance and early maturity, for example. Die-hard heirloom lovers tend to look at hybrids as being unnaturally uniform and lacking in diversity, but there’s no reason you can’t have both in your garden.
How can I get started?
If you’ve never planted or saved heirloom seeds before, it’s easy to get growing. There are resources that now specialize in saving and selling heirlooms, such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com), which offers an extensive collection of vegetables and flowers. Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org), with its thousands of varieties of heirloom seeds, is the largest nongovernmental seed bank in America and is particularly known for its heirloom vegetable collection. After your garden comes in this year, save and dry seeds from your best plants, store them in a labeled envelope, put the envelopes in an airtight container, such as a canning jar, and store the seeds in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to plant your own heirlooms next season.
A Revolutionary Gardener
When it comes to historic plants, Thomas Jefferson literally wrote the book. In his famed journal Garden Book, he tracked all of his trials in his quest to find the very best plants for his garden.
It’s also what made him one of the most revolutionary gardeners in American history, notes Peter Hatch. Jefferson was a true epicurean and spent a lot of his time trying to find the best-performing and tastiest vegetables, according to Hatch. Take peas, for example, one of Jefferson’s very favorites. He grew 22 different types in his gardening lifetime and was known to challenge fellow country gentlemen to be the first to bring their peas to the table each spring, adds Hatch. Jefferson’s last, or retirement, garden was a testament to all of the varieties he loved best.
Today, the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants saves and shares seeds from the estate gardens—Jefferson favorites (including ‘Tennis Ball’ lettuce and ‘Marrowfat’ peas), plus many other historic plants. The Center produces about 70,000 packages of these seeds every year. You will find some of them and more at monticello.org.