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Heirlooms are the unique, flavorful varieties of vegetables and fruit that have been around for at least 50 years (before commercial hybrids came along). Learn the many benefits of including heirlooms in the garden—from spring through fall—and some of our favorite varieties!
What is an Heirloom Plant?
To put it simply, an “heirloom” is an old variety of garden plant. Heirloom plants are the standard vegetables, fruit, and flowers that folks grew for centuries before commercial hybrids came along in the 1950s through 1970s.
Hybrids were created for better shipping, durability, disease-resistance, and marketability; however, hybrids sometimes lack the complex taste and character of heirlooms. Fortunately, thank to a resurgence in cooking and gardening, many folks are discovering some of the original flavorful heirlooms.
All heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re pollinated as nature intended—by insects, birds, or wind—not through human intervention. Sometimes, heirlooms might look odd because they aren’t grown for uniform shape and size, but most heirlooms have unbeatable flavor.
Heirlooms include plants developed by seed companies and market gardeners in the past; beloved backyard mixes that have emerged from home gardens and been carefully saved and passed along through families but that have never been in circulation as commercial varieties; and non-hybrid varieties that are coming into this country from Europe, South America, or Southeast Asia.
5 Reasons to Grow Heirlooms
The top reason to grow heirlooms is great flavor! Hybrids are bred mainly for supermarket durability and shipping, not flavor.
If you save heirloom seeds from one season to the next, they grow true to type, reliably producing the qualities of the parent. You can’t do that with most hybrid seeds, which is what most grocery markets carry.
Heirlooms preserve distinct flavors, shapes, and colors. So when you see a “weird” tomato, don’t worry! You’re just used to the uniformity of hybrids in supermarkets; heirlooms have intrinsic personalities with a variety of tastes, hues, and characteristics that make food interesting. Many heirlooms also have higher nutritional value.
Heirlooms help preserve diversity in food crops so that we don’t lose valuable genetic variation we might need down the road.
History! It’s truly interesting to discover the origin stories of American heirlooms. Many are handed down by generations of gardeners and nurseries in different regions.
Continue the tradition in your own garden.
Heirloom or Hybrid?
Do not feel as if you have to make a choice. Some gardeners will only grow heirlooms. However, many gardeners will select hybrids for better disease resistance, climate tolerance, or higher yield, but also choose a few heirlooms each year to try out some classic tastes and experiences.
Favorite Heirloom Vegetables
Heirloom seeds are available from most garden nurseries and you can also order them online. We’ve featured a few heirloom seed sources below, but just Google the seed name and you’ll be sure to find additional Websites to learn about heirloom seeds from!
Note: The “days to maturity” are listed in parentheses. See our Gardening Calendar for the first and last days to plant seeds in your location.
‘Black Seeded Simpson’ (55). Compact leaf lettuce.
‘Paris White Cos’ (30 to 60). Upright, thick, crisp leaves.
‘Tom Thumb’ (60). Small green heads only 3 to 4 inches across.
‘Winter Density’ (54) Romaine that grows well in cold weather.
‘May Queen Lettuce’ (50). Delicate butterhead with soft, buttery leaves.
‘Little Gem’ (30 to 50). Minature green romaine.
any heirloom variety