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Heirloom vegetables

What’s the big deal?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Heirloom vegetables

What’s the big deal?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

3 min read

A few years ago I stopped at a farm stall selling pumpkins and cucumbers, and not much else. Now you may think that’s pretty boring – until you see the range of pumpkins and cucumbers!

I tasted a small, round, yellow cucumber. The skin was a bit tough, and the seeds a big bigger than I am used to, but the flavour was intense. Like an idiot, I ate all the seeds because, back then, I didn’t know much about heirloom veggies. (I still don’t, but bear with me as we learn together.)

What are heirloom veggies?

Simply put, heirloom veggies are those that have evolved ‘naturally’ or close to naturally in association with humans. Throughout the millennia that we have been cultivating plants, famers have tended to select for specific traits. So if, for example, a tomato or apple is particularly tasty, any sensible agrarian will make a point of saving the seeds to plant the next season. But what makes these different from modern hybridised or selectively bred veggies is that the pollination is allowed to happen naturally – by wind or insects – without any interference. So heirloom vegetables (and flowers and fruit) are those that produce seeds that are true to type, and that are the result of natural (or open) pollination over a period of at least 50 years.

What are the advantages of heirloom veggies?

Heirloom veggies have a number of advantages, but the most obvious one is that you can save the seeds to plant the following season, so you don’t have to buy new seed every year. They are also – usually – more resilient, but the main advantage is that they are much more delicious. There is also some evidence that they are more nutritious. Now you may question this, thinking: ‘Why would farmers deliberately breed vegetables that are more bland and less nutritious?’ Good question, and they don’t. At least not deliberately. Most modern veggies are bred to be supermarket-friendly, which means they can be picked green and hormonally ripened, will travel well, and will have a long shelf life. Qualities like taste, resilience and nutrition take a second place. Oh – and they need to be pretty. Heirloom veggies are not usually as uniform in shape.

Another – less immediate – advantage of growing heirloom veggies is that you will be contributing to preserving plant biodiversity, which is a very good thing. Increased biodiversity translates into increased resilience, which will become more and more important as our climate continues to change.

So what?

Well, okay, you can probably get by perfectly well without growing, eating, or even seeing heirloom veggies, but your life can be infinitely richer with them. Some estates have communal vegetable gardens and, if you do, it’s worth growing as many heirloom varieties as you can. A fantastic example of the timeless appeal of such a garden is Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. It’s worth emulating – even if not to quite the same scale.

Monticello

Thomas Jefferson’s garden, which took him 40 years to create at his home in Virginia, was abandoned for more than 100 years after his death in 1826. But, in the late 1930s, the estate was taken over by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and work started on restoring the gardens. It’s been a long slog, but it’s been worth it.

The main veggie garden is a two-acre (about a hectare) terrace with in excess of 330 varieties of more than 70 species of heirloom vegetables, and the orchards, vineyards and berry patches contain hundreds of species and varieties of heirloom fruits. Jefferson was obsessed with fruits and vegetables, and would go to great lengths to acquire exotic specimens, which he then bred up so that he could distribute the seeds among friends, family and acquaintances – spreading the love.

As well as Jefferson’s love affair with plants, Monticello also documents aspects of 18th– and 19th-century life in America, so it’s well worth a visit – some time in the future, when we can once again travel to the USA.

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