Heirloom Gardening

Any seed holds an almost magical potential, but if it is an heirloom seed, then it also holds a vast store of history. Passed down from generation to generation of gardeners, heirloom seeds provide a rare opportunity to see and taste and smell the world as our ancestors did-long before technology began genetically altering the food and flowers that we grow. Most of the fruits and vegetables offered in our supermarkets' produce sections (and most of the seeds offered by large commercial seed companies) are hybrids, they come from plants that have been genetically engineered to produce fruits and vegetables that ripen uniformly, can be mechanically harvested, have tough skins that will survive shipping, and have a long shelf life. 

Heirloom plants, on the other hand, are plants that have been passed (usually by seed) from gardener to gardener for years-sometimes even centuries. Some heirlooms, such as 'Pink Hopi" corn, are natives, but others came to this country as seeds in the pockets of immigrants, who brought their favorite varieties from their homelands. One reason these antique plants have endured is that they are open pollinated, that is, they reproduce from seed and the resultant plants come back true to type. Hybrid plants (the cross between two parent varieties that are genetically different) produce seed that either won't grow or that grow into plants that revert back to one of the parent plants rather than remaining true to type. In the last several years, interest in heirlooms has blossomed as more and more gardeners discover the rewards of growing purple skinned carrots and 15-pound cabbages or the same flowers that decorated their grandmothers' backyards. their appeal is not solely historic. heirlooms often boast richer flavors and fragrances than hybrids. Because of this, restaurants are beginning to serve dishes that feature heirlooms, and antique roses and other heirlooms are making a comeback. 

Many advocates of heirlooms are also worried about the fact that we have lost so many of the food plants that were once available in this country. It's estimated that 75% of the native food plants growing when Columbus first set foot on our soil are now gone forever. And today we have only a tiny fraction of the plant varieties cultivated 100 years ago.

The value of diversity in plant varieties isn't just a matter of having a wide range of tomatoes to choose from when you want to make a dinner salad. Lack of genetic diversity can have serious repercussions. Because most of the potatoes grown in Ireland during the 1840's were of only one variety, a fungus was able to spread and wipe out the entire crop. More than one million people died in the resulting famine. A network of seed collectors all over the country is now intent on preserving the cultural heritage and diversity of our plants. Probably the largest single resource accessible to enthusiasts is the Seed Savers Exchange, a non profit organization with its own 170-acre farm and seed bank, in Iowa.  


More and more of these seed exchanges are springing up across the country (some can be found listed in magazines and there are others listed on the Internet). Seed companies specializing in or including heirloom seeds in their offering are also on the rise. If you'd like to try your hand at growing a few living antiques-perhaps a lobelia that's been gracing gardens since the fifteenth century, keep in mind that heirloom seeds are sometimes slow to germinate. In fact, some will shoot up even after you've given them up for dead. After you've enjoyed your heirloom plants' sumptuous flavors or perfumed blossoms, you'll want to save some seed for next year's crop or for a gardening friend. Complete information on saving seeds from different plants is available from seed exchanges, but the process is usually quite simple. One trick is to collect seeds only from plants that are isolated from other varieties; the seeds of different varieties will hybridize if the plants are grown too close together. Another is to let the seed grow to maturity , which in many instances means allowing the vegetable or flower to mature long past the time you would normally harvest it. The seeds are then separated from the fruit or vegetable, and if they're moist, are dried for a brief period of time. Then they can be stored in a cool dry place (sometimes the refrigerator) until the next growing season.  

By saving heirloom seeds, you'll become one more link in the valuable chain that helps us protect and preserves some of our most valuable inheritances.



Mixing in used coffee grounds to your soil and adding used tea and coffee to your compost will help repel nasty little pests who feed on roots and leaves. The caffeine in these products is what makes it such a great deterrent. Indeed, it is surmised that this is the purpose behind tea and coca plants developing caffeine in the first place! Just be careful not to add too much, a little bit goes a long way. Too much and it is toxic to the plants themselves.


 Crush Lemon Balm leaves or dry them and turn them into a powder. Sprinkle throughout the garden to repel a wide variety of pests. Use it around your squash patch to deter squash bugs. Lemon Balm contains citronella which also keeps mosquitoes away.




"If you want to be happy for an hour, have a party. If you want to be happy for a week kill your pig. But if you want to be happy all your life, become a gardener."




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