Seed catalogs arrive in the mail and I start to plan next year’s vegetable garden, an annual ritual as entrenched as those of any holiday. This winter I have a new focus, a resolution to grow heirloom vegetable varieties in Marjorie’s garden.
It started with Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, A Year of Food Life.” Published in 2007, it is the story of her family’s first year of trying to eat only regionally grown foods, either from their own garden or from local diversified farms.
Kingsolver resolved to buy what she could not grow herself from farmers markets rather than from the international produce section of the grocery store. She and her family discovered the real flavors of fresh-from-the-garden vegetables.
For the most part, supermarket vegetables are bred for uniform appearance, mechanized harvest, convenience in packaging (hence the square tomato), and tolerance for long-distance travel, this last factor dictated by our demand for “fresh” vegetables of all types, all year long, even if they taste like mealy cardboard. Somewhere along the way, flavor took a back seat to all of these other criteria, as any home gardener can testify.
Along with flavor, biodiversity has been tossed aside. Apply the above criteria as priorities in plant breeding programs and the results are predicable: the number of nonhybrid vegetable varieties available to gardeners from seed catalogs has shrunk from about 5,000 in 1981 to 600 in 1998.
This is where heirloom vegetable varieties enter the picture. They are loaded with flavor and their genetic diversity prepares them to weather the insect and disease storms that may come their way during any gardening season.
Heirloom vegetables are old, open-pollinated varieties that originated in gardens around the world, including varieties from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Although just how old is old enough remains an unresolved question, most authorities agree that a true heirloom vegetable must have been around before 1951, the year plant breeders introduced the first hybrid variety developed from inbred lines. Some experts would say true heirlooms are even older, dating from the 1920s or earlier, and some of the heirlooms from Europe have been in cultivation for nearly 400 years.
“Open-pollinated” means that heirloom varieties, unlike modern hybrids, will be true-to-type when grown from seed. Gardeners can select fruits from the best plants of an heirloom variety, save the seeds, and be assured that those seeds will produce the same type of plant the next year.
The term “open-pollinated” is a misnomer in that plants of a specific variety must be isolated from other varieties of the same vegetable type in order to avoid cross-pollination. For example, an heirloom squash variety must be isolated from other squash varieties; the same goes for members of the brassica family, including broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage varieties. Of course, this is important only if the gardener plans to save the seed.
Heirloom vegetables are experiencing something of a comeback, with most seed catalogs offering at least a few varieties. All other seed catalogs pale in comparison, however, with that of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com, a company devoted to preserving heirloom varieties through gardening. Their 2009 catalog offers more than 100 varieties of tomatoes alone, and, taken as a whole, provides hours of winter evening enjoyment preparing for the coming year.
Although not complete, my order to Baker Creek includes seeds of Brandywine tomato, a tasty potato-leafed variety from 1885; Early Golden Summer Crookneck, a summer squash dating back to pre-Columbian times; and Longfellow, a sweet-tasting straight slicing cucumber first introduced to this country in 1927. Each variety comes with a history of its origin and introduction to this country, value added that is missing from tasteless square tomatoes.
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