Gardeners who want to add a new dimension of flavor, color and variety to their vegetable patch can look to the past and discover heirloom plants.
In general, heirloom means that the variety was around before 1940 when hybrids first started being grown, says Carolyn Male, author of 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden.
Heirloom plants have many benefits, including their unique flavor, says Bill McDorman, founder and president of Seeds Trust in Cornville, Ariz. (pop. 3,335). Heirloom varieties are often the result of selection for fresh-picked flavor, a value often ignored in commercial vegetable varieties, which have to be shipped long distances and stored on grocery store shelves.
Despite the popular misconception, heirloom plants arent any harder to grow than hybrid plants. Most hybrid varieties have tolerances bred in for certain diseases, but unless those diseases are present in your area they mean nothing, Male says. She adds that disease tolerance may only gain a gardener one or two weeks of harvest time, which is less important to a home gardener than a large-scale grower.
For gardeners looking to buy heirloom seeds, there are several catalog seed suppliers around the nation, such as Seeds Trust: (928) 649-3315 or www.seedstrust.com; Tomato Growers Supply: (888) 478-7333 or www.tomatogrowers.com; and Heirloom Seeds: (412) 384-0852 or . One of the most satisfying reasons to grow heirloom plants is that gardeners can save seeds to grow next year, and even pass them along to friends and neighbors.
It is a human ritual to save the best seeds and pass them on, says McDorman, who believes that heirloom varieties are a better value for home gardeners than hybrids. Buy once, plant indefinitely.