Rediscover Heirloom Plants

When it comes to sustainability (and taste), heirloom plants could be the urban farmer’s key to success.

by Cherie Langlois
Heirloom vegetables

Courtesy Stock.XCHNG

Many heirloom vegetables adapt to specific climates and conditions, making them well-suited for local growing.

As we run to and fro in our busy, often fiercely independent lives, it seems like we need connections more than ever. Of course, we have Twitter and Facebook and texting, but we are thirsty for connections to the land, history, other cultures, places, family and neighbors. Farming heirloom plants and saving their seeds can offer these sorts of connections.

Interest in heirloom varieties of flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables has blossomed among city-dwelling consumers and farmers for good, practical reasons. Health experts hit us over the head with the need to eat more antioxidant-rich foods to ward off heart disease, cancer and other health woes. We try to buy or grow organic foods to help keep toxic chemicals out of our bodies and the environment.

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Most modern hybrid plants have been bred to respond to weed killers and other chemicals, explains Robert Rhoades, PhD, co-founder of Southern Seed Legacy, a regional seed-saving organization in Athens, Ga. Heirloom plants, on the other hand, developed before the advent of these “farming aids,” often tend to grow better under eco-friendly, organic practices.

To give us the healthier foods we desire, farmers’ markets, whole-food grocers, upscale restaurants and even some supermarkets offer an increased selection of specialty vegetables, providing outlets for farmers and gardeners who grow heirloom varieties.

Heirloom tomatoes — boasting a cool assortment of shapes, vibrant colors and flavors — have particularly garnered fans. Luscious, antique melons — like the popular Moon and Stars watermelon, once considered extinct — have as well. In terms of flavor, both heirloom tomatoes and melons have suffered at the hands of industrial farming. No doubt nostalgia also plays a part in the popularity of these heirloom crops.

“What people love and remember from childhood when they went to Grandma’s house, are the watermelons and old-time varieties of tomatoes,” Rhoades says.

Kathy Mendelson agrees. The botanist who has grown heirloom varieties for 20 years and runs The Heirloom Vegetable Gardener’s Assistant website says farmers are now looking for quality.

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