How to Grow An Heirloom Vegetable Garden
If you’ve never eaten an heirloom tomato fresh off the vine, then you, my friend, haven’t truly lived.
Honestly, when it comes to most vegetables in the garden, you just can’t beat the flavour of heirloom varieties.
Buttery French heirloom pumpkins. Fresh, juicy Italian heirloom tomatoes. Sweet American heirloom corn.
Yum, yum, and yum.
But if you’re new (or fairly new) to the gardening world, you may have heard the term “heirloom vegetables” or “heirloom seeds” before, but you might not be quite sure what an heirloom actually is, let alone how or why you should be growing them!
I honestly had never even heard of heirloom vegetables before I started really getting into gardening.
And even then, I think it was at least a year or two before I started to learn about them.
Correction: I think I had maybe heard of heirloom tomatoes before when I saw them on the menu at some upscale restaurant in the city. But I just figured it was a bougie term that chefs used to justify charging $20 for a salad.
In any case, I’ve become a lot more knowledgeable about heirloom vegetable varieties over the past few years, and while I don’t grow a 100% heirloom vegetable garden, I do include quite a few heirlooms in my garden every year, and I’m not kidding when I say they’re my favourite types of vegetables to grow.
Cool story. So what are heirloom vegetables?
Heirloom vegetables are strains of plants that have been grown, selected and replanted for many years and have a traceable lineage back to a certain time and place in history.
While there’s no set number of years or generations that a vegetable needs to have been grown for to make it an heirloom, the general consensus is that heirlooms are strains that have been selected and grown for at least 50 years.
There are many “younger” generations of North American heirlooms like Manitoba slicing tomatoes (1956) or Golden Bantam corn (1902). But some of my favourite heirloom vegetables are old world French and Italian heirlooms like Paris Market carrots, French Breakfast radishes, Borettana storage onions and Di Cicco broccoli.
Honestly, I love these old world European heirloom vegetables for no other reason than that they all sound SOOO romantic!!!
But I also find they have better flavour than most other kinds of vegetables we grow at home. And against grocery store vegetables, I mean, there’s just no comparison!
Plus, the variety of fruits and vegetables you get to choose from under the “heirloom” umbrella is honestly part of what makes gardening so much fun!
Pink brandywine tomatoes, Cinderella pumpkins, Glass Bead corn… You’ll NEVER find these things in most grocery stores, and you’d be hard pressed to find certain heirloom vegetables even if you were to shop your local farmers market instead! (Which you should, by the way.)
The point is, if you’re growing a garden, you need to be growing some heirloom veggies.
Planting and saving heirloom seeds
When it comes to choosing heirloom seeds, I’ve written and taught a bit about the different types of seeds already (I’ll link to posts and videos below), so I won’t go into comparing all of the different seed/vegetable types in this article.
But another reason why you might want to consider heirloom seeds/plants for your garden is because you can save seeds from heirloom plants.
Since heirlooms are a “pure strain,” as far as genetics go, when you replant them and grow them again, you’ll get the same type of offspring. Just like with purebred animals.
However, if you’re planting hybrid seeds, you won’t be able to save the seeds because whatever grows will revert back to one of the parent plants or have strange traits from both and is usually not very good to eat. Sort of like a mutt.
And just like mutts, hybrid vegetables are just as loveable and worthy of a place in your home (garden), but depending on your wants and needs in the garden, you might want to consider growing heirloom seeds too:)
Again, if you’re wondering what I’m talking about, I highly encourage you to check out one or more of the following posts/tutorials on the different types of seeds and how to select the right ones for your garden:
- How to Plan a Seed-Saving Garden
- How to Save Seeds: Seed Saving for Beginners
- The Beginner’s Guide to Organic Gardening
How to grow heirloom vegetables
Most heirloom vegetables that you’ll want to grow will need to be grown from seed. Established heirloom seedlings are harder to find at nurseries, so you’ll need to start your own seeds.
For a quick reference chart on how to grow 10 different types of vegetables from seed (including heirlooms!), you can grab the free printable seed-starting cheat sheet from the Gardening section of my Free Resource Library.
Or for more info. on starting seeds, you can check out this post on 8 things to think about before starting seeds, or this one on how to build your own (easy and affordable) indoor grow light stand.
Back to heirlooms…
Growing heirloom vegetables from seed is just like growing any other vegetables from seed. They don’t need any extra special care or attention. But you will, of course, want to make sure you’re starting with heirloom seeds in order to get true heirloom vegetables.
When selecting heirloom seeds, the first thing you want to look for on the seed packet is either the term “heirloom” or the abbreviation “OP,” which means “open-pollinated.”
Fruits and vegetables that are open-pollinated are pure and you can therefore save seeds from them (so long as they’re a self-pollinating type of vegetable like tomatoes, beans, peas, etc. Pumpkins and squash, for example, will cross-pollinate with other varieties, which makes them more difficult, but not impossible to save seeds from).
While open-pollinated seeds aren’t necessarily heirlooms (because they may not have a traceable lineage that goes back several generations the same way as heirlooms do), they are purebreds that you could easily become heirlooms because you are able to save seeds from them.
Technically you could start your own heirloom strain from any open-pollinated seed.
If, however, the seed packet has the abbreviation “F1” on it, then they’re not heirloom seeds.
F1 stands for “first generation” seeds, and indicates that they’re hybrid seeds, which are two different varieties of plants that have been deliberately crossed by humans.
These are very different than plants that naturally cross-pollinate with each other in nature, which is why you can’t save seeds from hybrids.
Hybrids, however, are safe to eat and are NOT the same thing as GMO seeds (which you don’t really have to worry about as a home gardener), but if you want to learn more about the different types of seeds and which ones you can save, then be sure to check out this post on how to plan a seed saving garden where I break down the different types of seeds in more detail.
So to sum up, look for the words “heirloom,” “open-pollinated” or the symbol “OP.”
I guess I could have just said that from the start…
Best heirloom vegetables to grow at home
While it’s hard to say which heirloom vegetables are the “best” ones to grow in your home garden (because it really depends on what qualities you’re looking for), here are a few popular and/or classic heirloom varieties that are staples in many a garden, both today and in days gone by.
- San Marzano and Amish Paste tomatoes (best heirloom varieties for making tomato sauce!)
- Pink Brandywine tomatoes (extra large, “meaty” slicing tomatoes)
- Kentucky Wonder green beans (a classic green pole bean, perfect for canning or eating fresh)
- Chicago Pickling Cucumbers (THE go-to pickling cucumber for home gardeners for generations!)
- Early Fortune cucumbers (great for fresh eating)
- Danver carrots (large, orange classic carrots)
- Calabrese broccoli (the “original” broccoli, named after the Italian town of Calabria from whence it came… Yup, I just used the word “whence” in a sentence. Can you do that?)
- Parris Island Cos romaine lettuce (classic, crisp romaine lettuce, perfect for caesar salads on the patio!)
- Danish Ballhead cabbage (fantastic for the fall/winter garden. Stores well all the way until late spring!)
- Golden Bantam corn (beautiful standard yellow corn with a sweet flavour that’s great for fresh eating!
- Red Bull’s Horn sweet red peppers (the best sweet heirloom peppers on the planet, in my humble opinion;)
- Sugar pumpkins (aka. pie pumpkins… These are the standard sweet, fleshy pumpkins used in most homemade pumpkin pies!)
Interesting and unique heirloom vegetables to try
The part of heirloom vegetable gardening that’s the by far the MOST FUN is getting to try interesting and unique strains of vegetables that you just can’t get anywhere else.
Here are a few to add to your bucket list:
- Dragon Tongue shelling beans (these bush beans can be enjoyed whole like wax beans until the outer shell develops its signature purple streaks, at which point it becomes a shelling bean. Great option for dried beans).
- French Breakfast radishes (long and slender radishes with red tops that taper to white bottoms, these radishes look like something out of a Beatrix Potter story!)
- Paris Market carrots (these are a personal favourite of mine! The carrots grow in a round, ball-like shape rather than the typical long, slender carrots we’re used to. Great flavour and good producers in the garden!)
- Chioggia beets (beautiful, candy-striped beets with alternating red and white rings).
- Radicchio di Lusia radicchio (radicchio in and of itself is a unique vegetable to add to your garden. This Italian heirloom is light, almost lime green and speckled with red-purple spots, adding beauty to the edible garden!)
- Glass Bead corn (arguably the most beautiful corn on the market, the kernels are a rainbow of colours and are almost transluscent, making them really look like glass beads! Makes a good popping corn).
- Cucamelon cucumbers (aka. Mexican Sour Gherkins, cucamelons look like tiny watermelons, but taste like cucumbers with a hint of lemon. Small fruits but very productive plants!)
- Cherokee Purple tomatoes (dark red/purple in colour and superb flavour! One of the best selling heirloom tomato varieties).
- Black Beauty tomatoes (dubbed the “world’s darkest tomato,” these are so dark purple they’re almost black and similar in colour to blackberries).
- Pink or Purple Bumble Bee tomatoes (red with what looks like stripes, these are a beautiful cherry tomato variety)
- Cimmaron romaine lettuce (deep red in colour with outstanding flavour and crisp texture)
- Murasaki Purple peppers (deep purple and small in size, these look like a hot pepper but taste more like a green pepper. The purple flowers that bloom before they set fruits are equally as beautiful in the garden!)
- Musquée d’Hiver de Provence pumpkins (gorgeous, deeply ribbed French heirloom pumpkins that are as decorative as they are delicious!)
- Long Island Cheese pumpkins (similar to the Musquée d’hived pumpkins, the ribs are pronounced and these pumpkins are more short and squat than large and round).
- Queensland Blue pumpkins (blue-green in colour with sweet golden flesh)
- Rouge Vif d’Etampes pumpkins (aka. “Cinderella pumpkins,” this is another French heirloom that’s a beautiful red-orange in colour).
- Galeux d’Eysines pumpkins (yet another unique French heirloom pumpkin that is more of a pastel peachy orange and appears to have warts!)
Honestly, there are SOOO many heirloom vegetables that are worthy of mention here (and worthy of a spot in your garden), but I could literally be here all day listing them off.
I recommend browsing through seed catalogues or online to check out the full variety of heirlooms available to home gardeners.
I get most of my sees from West Coast Seeds, which is based out of here in BC in the Pacific Northwest. They have a pretty good selection of heirloom seeds so they keep me pretty happy.
But if you really want to get into heirloom vegetable gardening, I highly recommend checking out Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They’ve got a fantastic and wide-ranging selection of heirlooms of all types (their selection of heirloom tomato seeds can’t be beat!).
Have you ever grow heirloom vegetables before? What are your favourite varieties?
P.S. Want more help growing your own food at home? Download my free guide, How to Grow Your Own Food in Less Than 15 Minutes A Day and learn how to grow an organic grocery store in your backyard even if you’re limited on time!
Wishing you homemade, homegrown, homestead happiness:)
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