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By Traci Guthrie

Understanding heirloom vegetables

In a world filled with genetically modified foods, or GMOs, finding a grower who specializes in heirloom vegetables is a breath of fresh air.

Heirloom vegetables come from unique, open-pollinated seeds that are not modified or mass harvested by man. Many have an amazing history, such as the beans that were grown by Thomas Jefferson in 1812, or cabbage like Julius Caesar's troops carried with them to Britain more than 2,000 years ago. One of the most popular stories is about how an unemployed mechanic used heirlooms seeds to grow huge, meaty tomatoes that he sold to eventually pay off his mortgage. These are called "Radiator Charley's Mortgage Lifter" tomatoes.

As you can imagine, not any old seed can be called an heirloom. In order to be considered an heirloom, the vegetable seeds need to have the following qualities:

  • Be at least 50 years old
  • Be handed down from generation to generation
  • Have a back story
  • Be open-pollinated (pollinated by insects or wind)

Many heirloom seeds come from immigrants that came to the New World. They brought the seeds because they wanted to plant the same flowers and vegetables that they grew at home. Heirloom vegetables have adapted over time to the climate and soil that they grow in. Thankfully, heirlooms are generally resistant to pests and disease.

These days the agriculture industry has become very industrialized, limiting the number of farmers growing heirloom vegetables. Fortunately, there are several community groups all over the United States that are dedicating their orchards to preserve historic seeds so that heirloom fruits and vegetables can be available to home gardeners again. There are also many catalog seed companies that sell heirloom vegetable seeds. Heirloom seeds are often less expensive than hybrid seeds.

Although heirloom gardening may be out of the ordinary at this time, farmers and gardeners love to hand-select their heirloom seeds. They do this for several reasons:

  • Heirloom vegetables are often more nutritious than those grown from hybrid seeds
  • Heirloom vegetables have exceptional flavor and taste
  • They can save the seeds from vegetables that work the best in their garden
  • Heirloom vegetables often don't ripen all at once, thus having a longer picking season
  • Genetically, they are stronger plants

Heirloom vegetable growers take great pride in what they sow. Keeping history alive and producing the best, non-genetically modified vegetables is very important to them. It may take a little more work, and the finished product may not look like what you are used to seeing in stores, but there is something to be said for harvesting these seeds.

If you are interested in growing your own heirloom vegetables, visit your local farmer's market and talk to the heirloom growers about what works in your particular area. You can also ask some of the elders in your family or community to see if they are growing any heirloom vegetables and are willing to share some of their seeds.

With a little research and effort, you can be on your way to continuing the tradition of growing heirloom vegetables that have been passed down through history.

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