Heirloom Vegetables — Our Gardening Heritage

With the buzz around Monsanto and GMO crops these days, we as gardeners can get back to our roots, both literally and figuratively speaking, by growing Heirloom Vegetables. Heirloom vegetables have withstood the test of time, being passed down from generation to generation having been grown by our grandparents and their ancestors tracing back 50-100 years… or more!. They truly represent our gardening heritage and give us a taste of history.

A key characteristic of heirloom vegetables is that they are open-pollinated (OP) which means that the seeds can be saved and when planted, will come back “true to type” which means the plants look just like their parents.

The choices of heirloom vegetables still seems quite large when you look at all of the seed catalogs, but it is actually much smaller now than in years past. The most common food plants that are available today only represent 3 percent of those present in 1900. When commercial hybridization of plants began in 1950, many people started buying the hybridized seeds instead of the heirloom varieties. A disadvantage of hybridized plants is that their seeds cannot be harvested and sown the next year because their seeds do not come up “true to type.” Hybridized plants were at first desired because of their ability to grow over a wider area as well as their cosmetic appearance and marketing convenience. These traits replaced the evolutionary and traditional importance once held for the heirloom’s genetic diversity, viability, nutrition and flavor. Heirloom varieties that have been selected for taste and tenderness through several generations are often tastier than cultivars that have been selected for ease of shipping, uniform appearance or ability to grow well throughout the country yet every year we lose more and more heirloom vegetables and the diversity they provide. These old-blood original heirlooms may indeed hold the secret key if modern varieties are stricken by a pest or problem that they have not had centuries to adapt to.

Of all the heirloom vegetables, tomatoes are probably the most popular. When you picture a tomato, a beautifully red, round, juicy specimen probably comes to mind. However, if you have grown heirlooms or been in Wegmans lately and have seen the assortment of heirloom tomatoes for sale, there aren’t too many beautifully red, round specimensjuicy yes, red or round, probably not. Heirloom tomatoes come in every shape, size and color and can be divided into groups by their uses such as fresh eating, paste and sauce tomatoes, or huge ones to enter in your county fair. The variety of heirloom tomatoes is overwhelming and exceptionally fun to grow. That is one of the reasons the Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteers decided to highlight heirloom tomatoes in their demonstration garden this year. They have over 15 varieties growing, including Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, Black Russian, Abe Lincoln, Absinth and Speckled Roman to name a few. The Master Gardeners are excited to offer a tasting of these tomatoes at the next Evening in the Garden on Wednesday, Aug. 21, starting at 6 p.m. In addition to tasting the varieties, there will be a demonstration on saving seeds from heirloom plants.

The event is free and open to the public. The demonstration garden is located at the Frank Bratt Ag Center, 3542 Turner Road, Jamestown. Please join the Master Gardeners and learn how you can help preserve our past and enjoy a tastier future with Heirloom Vegetables.

For more information on heirloom vegetables, please visit the following sites:

The Heirloom Vegetable Gardener’s Assistant – www.halcyon.com/tmend/heirloom.htm

The Seed Saver’s Exchange – www.seedsavers.org/

Heirloom Tomatoes, CSU Fact Sheet – www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/columngw/gr090221.htm

The mission of the Chautauqua County Master Gardener Program is to educate and serve the community, utilizing university and research-based horticultural information. Volunteers are from the community who have successfully completed 50-plus hours of Cornell approved training and volunteer a minimum of 50 hours per year.

For more information on the Master Gardener Program, please contact: Betsy Burgeson, Master Gardener coordinator, at 664-9502, ext. 204, or email. Emh92@cornell.edu.

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