Why You Should Grow Heirloom Veggies

Reap the many benefits of timeless, region-specific veggies

Challenging climates have nothing on heirlooms. These classic open-pollinated plants not only connect us to the long history of gardening because of their age. Over time, they’ve adapted to local conditions, making them solid choices for your backyard. Gardeners should select heirloom varieties from their region or an area with similar conditions to get the most out of the plants.

Heirloom Basics

Tor Janson, collection curator for the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org), compares these plants to family keepsakes because the seeds are passed down through generations. Heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means they are pollinated naturally by insects, birds, humans and the wind. They also self- and cross-pollinate.

The seeds usually stay true to type over time. This makes their behavior in the garden easier to predict than that of hybrids, which are the result of cross-breeding of two varieties. Hybrids rarely stay true in successive generations.

“Generally, heirloom varieties that have been grown over generations in a particular area tend to work well there,” Janson says.

The Hot and Humid Southeast

Long growing seasons with high heat and humidity are hard on a lot of vegetables. “Many crops can’t cope,” says Randel Agrella, seed production manager for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com). Selecting the right plants is one way to deal with the heat, but Agrella also suggests gardening from fall to spring instead of during the summer.

Switching the growing season will have the most impact on tomatoes, a crop affected by sustained high temperatures. Agrella recommends eastern European tomato varieties, which develop full flavor in cool weather, for late-summer planting. For spring planting, try southern European types that ripen in the heat.

Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (southernexposure.com), an heirloom resource for Southern gardeners, says smaller tomato varieties tend to be less demanding and better withstand high heat. Wallace particularly likes Cherokee Purple tomatoes, which the company introduced to the seed-buying market.

Beyond tomatoes, there’s a wealth of veggies that thrive in the heat and humidity of the Southeast, including okra, watermelon, pole beans, collards and bell peppers.

The Cool Midwest and Northwest

Where the summers are short and relatively cool, such as in the Northwest and upper Midwest, look for varieties of tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant and watermelon that mature quickly.

Cool stretches interspersed among the hot days can affect growth. “Not all days are created equal,” Agrella says. “Ninety days to maturity means 90 fairly ideal days.” Instead, he suggests selecting varieties labeled as 80 days to maturity.

Timing and starting seeds indoors are important in short-season areas. Varieties from the Pacific Northwest and eastern Europe generally also work well in the Northeast and upper Midwest, as do local heirlooms, Agrella says.

The Dry and Arid Southwest

Many vegetables are difficult to grow in the hot and dry Southwest. “Most common crops are going to be a challenge,” Agrella says. In these regions, intercropping, or companion planting, makes better use of the land and often boosts productivity, according to Gary Paul Nabhan in his book Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land. So, a vine such as pole bean or melon climbs up a tall crop like corn or sorghum.

Buying Heirloom Seeds

Many seed companies and seed banks specialize in heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. When buying, look for sources that support the mission of seed saving or those that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge from the Council for Responsible Genetics.

Part of the Past

Gardening with heirlooms isn’t just about practicality. Planting seeds that have been carefully passed from one generation to the next fosters an emotional connection. “I like the sense that I’m connected to this thing that goes back to the beginning of agriculture,” Agrella says. “It’s the feeling of being part of something.” And that’s the real magic. 

47 Veggie Picks by Climate

Hot and humid

Bell peppers: Ashe County Pimiento, Doe Hill Golden Bell

Collards: Morris Heading

Okra: Cajun Jewel

Peanuts: Schronce’s Deep Black

Pole beans: Louisiana Purple Pod, Selma Zesta

Tomatoes: Late-summer planting: Belarusian Heart, Black Prince, Brave General, Emerald Apple, Mushroom Basket, Stupice;
spring: Comstock Sauce ’n’ Slice, Costoluto Genovese, Cuor di Bue, Pantano Romanesco; summer: Bonny Best, Cherokee Purple, Eva Purple Ball, Placero

Watermelon: Moon & Stars,Strawberry

Short season

Bell peppers: King of the North, Horizon, Oda

Bush beans: Contender, Roma II

Eggplant: Japanese Pickling, Japanese White Egg, Mitoyo

Tomatoes: Glacier, Sub-Arctic Plenty, Tess’s Land Race Currant, and all late-summer varieties from the Hot and Humid list above

Watermelon: Blacktail Mountain, Cream of Saskatchewan, Sweet Dakota Rose

Arid

Beans: Rattlesnake (pole), Provider (bush)

Corn: Stowell’s Evergreen, Yuman Yellow

Cucumber: Beit Alpha

Peppers: California Wonder, Chimayo

Tomatoes: Moonglow, Punta Banda, Yellow Pear

Heather Lamb
Heather Lamb is a writer and gardener from Columbia, Missouri.