What’s Old Is New: Heirloom Vegetables

By Shannon McKee
Published: August 1, 2016 | Last updated: April 21, 2021 04:27:58
Key Takeaways

Heirloom vegetable varieties are those that have been treasured throughout the ages simply because they were at one time considered high enough quality to be passed down from generation to generation. Growing heirloom plants can provide a link to the past as well as bountiful, delicious harvests. Shannon Mckee shares her tips on what to grow, how to source the seeds and how to preserve your heirloom seeds for future seasons.

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Heirloom plants are rare jewels that have almost been forgotten due to the proliferation of commercial farming. Often unsuitable for commercial farming because they don’t always ripen consistently and are often peculiar shapes or appearances, heirlooms are perfect for home gardeners who find these varieties unique and fun to grow.


While there are some debates going on about how old a plant needs to be to be considered an heirloom, experts agree that heirlooms are open-pollinated, are not genetically modified and have been growing successfully for many generations. Heirlooms are genetically diverse, and there are a wide variety of them to choose from.

Heirlooms are fun to grow because of their unique features and colors, plus they taste great. Here’s how to get your hands on some heirloom seeds and start growing your own.


Sourcing Seeds for Heirloom Veggies

Some seed companies specialize in rare and exotic seeds, and many are often heirlooms. Check out a catalog to get some ideas on what you might like to grow. Your local garden center probably sells heirlooms seeds and plants as well.

A third option is to check out local organizations for seed-sharing groups. For instance, you might find a seed library in your community. Seed libraries allow you to “check-out” seeds to grow in your garden. After your harvest, they require you to return a certain amount of seeds, or provide the group with seeds from another heirloom plant they might not already have in the collection. These groups can also be a great source of information on all topics pertaining to heirlooms—from great varieties to seed saving. Try looking for online groups as well, or see what social media has to offer when it comes to seed-saving libraries.


Seed Saving from Heirloom Plants

Seed saving works well for heirloom plants because they are open-pollinated, which means they are pollinated by insects, birds, wind or other natural mechanisms. Seeds saved from heirloom plants will produce new generations of those plants, as opposed to hybrid plants, which are cross-bred, so any offspring will resemble one of the plants used to produce the hybrid, rather than the hybrid itself. Heirloom seeds should be saved from your most productive and vibrant plants to ensure future generations continue to thrive.


Different types of plants require different types of seed-saving techniques to ensure the best possible germination rates for the following year. Wet plants like tomatoes require their seeds to be cleaned and dried, whereas peas and beans can often be dried right on the vine. Seeds from dry plants like flowers can often be taken out with little effort.

Heirloom plants are a true treasure in any garden. They produce a delightful variety of crops, and their seeds can be saved for generations to come. Explore the fun of planting something new and different to see which you prefer and what grows best in your region. And who knows? Bright colors and funky shapes might just be enough to get a whole new generation of people interested in growing their own. Some examples include:

  • STRIPEY TOMATOES – Vibrant red tomatoes with yellow stripes.
  • PURPLE MAJESTY POTATOES – Bright purple potatoes that are sure to fancy up your next plate of mashed potatoes.
  • LEMON CUCUMBERS – Cucumbers that look like lemons and have a mild flavor.
  • OX-HEART CARROTS – Large carrots that can grow to be 1 lb. a piece.
  • MORTGAGE LIFTER TOMATOES – Huge red tomatoes rumored to have saved their discoverer’s home from being taken by the bank.
  • DRAGON'S TONGUE BUSH BEANS Beautiful yellow and purple pods.
  • WHITE SCALLOP SQUASH – Pretty, small squash known for their round, shallow shape and scalloped edges.
  • HOPI CORN – Blue corn grown by the Hopi tribe that can be eaten on the cob or made into flour.

How to Save Tomato Seeds

  • Start by picking one of the best-looking tomatoes in your garden. It should be ripe and look like the type of tomato you would want to see again in next year’s crop. Wash it, and then cut it down the center.
  • Scoop out the insides with clean fingers or a utensil, and place them into a cup. Add a small amount of water to this gooey mixture of seeds and pulp and cover with a piece of plastic wrap that is ventilated with a small hole to allow for fermentation.
  • Place your container in a warm location that gets a great deal of sun, such as a windowsill, or on the top of the refrigerator. It will take a few days for your seed mixture to ferment, so be sure to stir it every day and replace the plastic wrap. A surface of scum will slowly begin to appear on the liquid, which means fermentation has separated the pulpy goo from the seeds.
  • Remove the scum with a spoon and pour the rest of the container’s contents into a fine strainer. Rinse the seeds, stirring thoroughly to ensure all the goop has been removed and seeds are thoroughly cleaned.
  • Place your seeds in a single layer on a coffee filter or wax paper, and put them in an area where they can dry over the next week without being disturbed. Your seeds are dry when they no longer stick to each other or the surface they are drying on. Any moisture left in stored seeds can result in mold, so make sure they are completely dried before storing.
  • Store your seeds in a cool, dry place inside a small plastic bag or envelope to keep them safe. Remember to date and label the packets.
  • Have fun planting and sharing your seeds for years to come!

These basic instructions can get you started on saving your seeds, but be sure to look for seed-saving guides online or at the bookstore, or get in touch with the gardeners at your local seed library or garden center for help.


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Written by Shannon McKee | Freelance Writer, Gardener

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Shannon McKee lives in Ohio and has been a freelance writer for several years now, including on her blog, Nicknamed by loved ones a garden hoarder over the past few years, she grows a wide variety of plants in her urban garden.

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