Thursday, April 24, 2014

Heirloom Plant Varieties Inherit More Than a Good Harvest

Home Gardeners Chose Plants with Better Flavor & Interesting History
by Carol Kagan

Heirlooms provide a sense of history. The old wardrobe from Great Aunt Rose’s attic, an antique hand-carved rocking chair, and a rusty tool from a local auction carry a sense of history, of the people who used them.

This holds true for heirloom plant varieties. Many gardeners are drawn to the stories behind the names. ‘Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter’ tomato came from radiator business owner, “Charlie,” who came up with a large, meaty and productive variety that he sold during the depression. He used the money from this side business to pay off his mortgage.

“Heirloom seeds are usually more than 50 years old and have been passed down from generation to generation,” said Kathy McFarland, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.  “This means they come with fascinating stories and heritage from years past.”
‘Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad’ tomato has been traced back to Kentucky through Ripley, Ohio. The seeds were carried by an escaping slave as he traveled the Underground Railroad. The tomato is characteristic of those grown in that era.

Aunt Lou's Underground Railroad Tomatoes (Ole Farm House)
While the stories don’t enhance flavor, shelf-life, color, or fragrance, they are a way to connect to our plant and flower heritage.  “Heirloom seeds have often been handed down as family favorites,” said Chris Mayer, Director at Wilson College’s Fulton Center for Sustainable Living.

Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated which means that, unlike hybrids, seeds you collect from one year will produce the same plants the next year. “Using heirlooms helps preserve the gene pool and assure that resilience from pests, diseases and climate are built into the system,” said Mayer.
Home gardeners, unlike commercial growers have the luxury to choose what they grow. Many choose these vegetables and flowers for taste, shape, hardiness and color not found in hybrid selections.
Bullnose Pepper
(Geo. Washington's Mount Vernon)

Originally from India, Bullnose Peppers (Capsicum annuum) have been in U.S. gardens since the mid-1870’s. Thomas Jefferson grew these sweet peppers and are still grown at Monticello. They ripen early, withstand bad weather and their thick skins make them ideal for pickling, stuffing and raw with dips. While 20 seed companies offered these over 25 years ago, today vendors are rare and seeds often “out of stock.”

Tomatoes are the one vegetable that has a wide range of shapes, colors, taste and growing habit. Cherry, slicer, beefsteak, or canning types are available as are pink, orange, white and striped varieties.
“Most heirlooms taste better than the hybrid and genetically modified produce because these have been bred and selected for generations based on how they taste,” said McFarland.
'Arbuznyi' Tomato
As evidenced in the annual Tomato Tasting Day at Penn State Extension, Franklin County, there is a wide variety of taste. While shoppers may avoid any misshapen or blemished tomato in the grocery bin, home gardeners seem content to relish the taste over the appearance.
Pennsylvania heirloom tomatoes include Brandywine, reported to be introduced in 1885 by Amish farmers in Chester County. Other Mennonite and Amish heirlooms include Hahnstown Yellow, Amish Oxheart and Eva's Amish Stripe.
Brandywine (TomatoFest)
As for heirloom flowers, they often have better fragrances and more unique shapes than the usual offerings in garden centers. Introduced in 1792, the Cup and Saucer plant (Cobaea scandens) has a floral-honey fragrance and the cup-shaped flowers open pale green and turn dark purple. The green sepals at the base form a saucer. Mayer noted that saving seeds from heirlooms allows gardeners to enjoy the same variety year after year.
Cup and Saucer plant (Cobaea scandens)
Steve Bogash, Penn State Extension horticulture educator based in Cumberland County said, "With the rapid growth in vegetable gardening, demand promises to be higher than ever, if [you want] specific varieties of vegetables … for the coming season, you may want to get your [seed] orders in early."

'Violetta Itallia' Cauliflower (Baker Creek)
The window for seed starting to transplant in mid-May has closed. Gardeners seeking heirloom or unusual varieties probably won’t find them at the local garden centers or nurseries.
Why are the Master Gardener plant sales different than others?

           Heirloom and unique varieties, most not offered at garden centers, are growing in the greenhouse. Plants such as ‘Mortgage Lifter,’ and ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes are among over 50 varieties growing. ‘Bullnose’ peppers, ‘Cup and Saucer’ flowers, ‘Violletta Itallia’ cauliflower, ‘Brunswick’ cabbage  and many more vegetable and flowers will be available
           In southern central Pennsylvania the last frost date is May 10. With the Greenhouse Sale on May 9 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and the Plant Sale on May 17 (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) customers can transplant with no need to hold plants until the last frost date.

           Locally grown plants, nurtured by Master Gardeners in their Franklin County home landscapes, have been divided out and potted up to sell.
           Master Gardeners available to offer assistance for choosing and caring for the plants offered.

More links:
Seed Catalogs -Tomatoes 2012
Early Veggie Harvest
2011 Tomato Day Results
Time to Pick Your Tomatoes for 2014
Baker Creek Seeds
Wilson College Fulton Farm


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