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Heirlooms bring regional flavor to your garden

Along with the Christmas cards, the last two weeks of December brought a flood of seed catalogs. It was a tough call as to what to read first.

This year I am planning to add more heirloom vegetables to the garden to find out what really does well here. Heirlooms are little bits of garden history that have been passed from one generation of gardeners to the next, sometimes for hundreds of years. Being a history nut, I find that fascinating.

Before the big seed companies began to mass produce the most popular varieties, each region of the country had its own strains of seed that were popular. They were varieties that produced well, were easy to collect seed from and had a flavor and an overall quality that appealed to the gardener. They were grown for their flavor, their keeping or storage qualities and tolerance to growing and weather conditions.

By definition an heirloom seed is open pollinated and will reliably produce exactly the same kind of vegetable, fruit or flower that its parents did year after year. A plant usually doesn’t qualify as an heirloom until it has been in production for at least 50 or even 100 years. Some varieties date back several hundred years.

Growing heirlooms from other regions can be a challenge. Each heirloom evolved in its own habitat and adapted to the weather patterns, soils, temperatures and likes of the gardener. While the likes of the gardener can be moved from place to place, weather, soil and climate factors can’t.

Take the popular Brandywine tomato. It was developed in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania by an Amish farmer around 1885. It grew beautifully there in the long, warm summer weather taking about 90 days to produce ripe fruit. This works in Pennsylvania but not in the 60- to 70-day growing season of our Inland Northwest. As a result, Brandywines rarely do well here unless we have an exceptionally long warm summer. The closest heirloom we have right now is the Walla Walla sweet onion.

So what are some of my favorite heirloom seed catalogs? My all time favorite has been Johnny’s Selected Seeds out of Winslow, Maine. It has a very broad list of heirloom and conventional seeds and provides very detailed growing and harvesting information.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds out of Mansfield, Mo., carries a broad selection of both heirloom and rare seeds and is a very strong promoter of heirlooms in general. They sponsored the first National Heirloom Exposition in Sonoma County, Calif., last fall.

Seed Savers Exchange is another long-standing heirloom and open pollinated seed catalog. Over the past 35 years, proceeds from their seed sales have supported their nonprofit mission to preserve the biodiversity of seeds through seed banking.

All three companies have signed the Safe Seed Pledge which states they do not knowingly buy seed containing genetically modified material and support seed biodiversity.