Heirloom vegetables are popular these days with home gardeners. Heirlooms are simply old varieties that have gone out of commercial production. A lot of these were left behind as plant breeders sought to breed new varieties that sacrificed taste for a uniform color and the ability to ship long distances.
I’m all for heirlooms. A lot of these varieties have a story that goes with them, making them fodder for conversation. The plants are open-pollinated, meaning you can plant the seed from the mature plants the following year. You can’t do this with hybrids and genetically modified seed.
One problem I see with heirlooms for us northern gardeners is finding varieties suited for our short growing season. One thing the plant breeders have done for the home gardener is breed some varieties for our short growing season. A good example is the Hybrid Extra Early Sweet Corn I plant each year in my northern garden. To my knowledge, there isn’t a comparable heirloom for short season zones.
So what is a northern gardener to do? Well, there’s nothing wrong with hybrids, per se. People have been cross-breeding plants for centuries; how else do you think we got corn from a grass? Genetically modified seed is a different story (more on GM seeds in a future blog).
What we need to do as northern gardeners if we want to grow interesting, tasty heirlooms is to choose the heirloom varieties we want to grow carefully. Many of these varieties require a long growing season, mostly because they were originally grown in the southern parts of the country. For instance, Waltham Butternut, an AAS prize winner from 1970, is probably a tasty squash, but requires 83-100 days to maturity. If you do plan on growing this one in your northern garden, be sure to employ some of my season extending ideas detailed in my book, North Country Gardening: Simple Secrets to Successful Northern Gardening.
Take a good look at the heirloom varieties offered in catalogs, such as that of the Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org). Lettuces, kale, and some of the root crops featured in these heirloom catalogs don’t require a long growing season, so will do just fine in our growing zone (3-5). If you look real carefully, you may find other varieties that don’t take long to mature, like the Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, a variety first grown by Francis Brill in New Jersey, in 1840. At 60-75 days, it’s the earliest variety offered by Seed Savers Exchange, and should do well, especially when started from transplants and set out early while the weather is still cool.
In conclusion, know that there is a reason for hybridizing plants, reasons that aren’t all bad, especially for us northerners who need a little help from the plant breeders who have developed short season varieties. In the mean time, be on the lookout for heirloom varieties that require less than 70 days to maturity, or are a root crop that can grow into the fall.
Reminder: it’s time to get ordering those seeds! Beat the rush and the possibility of seed shortages by ordering early. Also, if you plan on starting seeds indoors, it’s time to get ordering seeds and setting up artificial lighting.
FYI: Jung’s offers free shipping for orders over $75.