What Is An Heirloom Plant: Reaping The Benefits Of Heirlooms

There’s nothing better than buying some fresh tomatoes from the grocers and mixing up a batch of your famous homemade salsa — or is there? With the increasing popularity of farmer’s markets, the demand for not only organic, sustainable produce has leapt, but also the push for heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits. Keep reading to learn more about growing heirloom plants.

What is an Heirloom Plant?

So what is an heirloom plant? Some define heirloom vegetables and fruits by the length of time in which the cultivar has been grown.

Some horticulturists actually put a date on this definition; the date being any cultivar developed before 1951 can be categorized as an heirloom vegetable or fruit. Prior to 1951, people were growing heirloom plants because growers had not yet introduced the first hybrid cultivars.

What is the Difference Between Hybrid and Heirloom?

So, what is the difference between hybrid and heirloom plants? Growing heirloom vegetables and fruits means that the seeds from these are open pollinated; therefore, characteristics of each particular cultivar is passed on exactly from year to year. For example, the same size, growth habit, color and flavor will be passed from the parent plant of this year to the seedlings of next year.

Conversely, the nature of a hybrid is that it is composed of two or more cultivars to create a new variety containing chosen traits from all and can be cross pollinated, which often results in sort of a mix up of desirable traits.

Benefits of Heirlooms

Benefits of heirlooms are their time proven attributes such as superior flavor, color, size, and production. Some varieties of heirloom plants can be traced back hundreds of years and have been cultivated by Native American people. Varieties of heirloom plants have often been passed down through not only the family tree but via whole groups of people who recognize their positive characters and choose to save seeds from the best tasting and most productive plants.

Other benefits of heirlooms are the sheer variety and may be chosen for their distinctive shapes and unique colors. In other words, they are just fun to grow! Of course, one of the greatest benefits of heirlooms is in maintaining the diverse genetic base represented so as not to lose these crucial traits.

Tips for Growing Heirloom Plants

First, when attempting to grow heirlooms, don’t save seed from hybrids as they won’t produce the same plant as that of the parent.

Vegetables which are mostly self pollinators like beans, peas, peanuts, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces are great choices for saving heirlooms seeds as they will duplicate the qualities of the parent plant. Since insects will on occasion pollinate these varieties of heirloom plants, they should be planted at least 10 feet apart.

Insect or wind pollinated heirloom varieties should be planted several hundred yards or so from other varieties, to prevent cross pollination. These include:

  • Squash
  • Broccoli
  • Beets
  • Pumpkins
  • Corn
  • Onions
  • Cucumbers
  • Carrots
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Melons
  • Radishes
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Turnips

To completely preserve the quality of an heirloom, it’s best, especially for the small home gardener, to plant only one variety of a species at any one time to prevent cross over. Heirloom vegetables may be grown separately in screened cages or individual flowers can be bagged and hand pollinated. Time isolation wherein the timing of the flowering plants is staggered may also be used to reduce cross pollination.

Choose the healthiest, most productive and tastiest plants to save seed from before harvesting the entire crop. Allow seeds to ripen prior to harvesting, as they are more likely to produce healthier plants. Then bring the seeds indoors to continue to dry. Label them clearly with the date and variety. Three to five years shelf life is ideal for most dry seeds stored in a sealed glass jar in a cool, dry area. Silica gel packs will aid in keeping the seeds dry and diatomaceous earth can be added to deter insects.

Downside of Heirloom Plants

There’s a reason that hybrid plants became so popular. Heirloom vegetables and fruit often don’t have the disease resistance that hybrid plants are purposefully created to combat. That said, it should in no way deter you from getting out there and growing heirloom plants.

To reduce the risk of such common diseases as Verticillium and Fusarium wilt, be sure to plant your heirlooms in containers using soilless medium or rotate crops in the garden to reduce the possibility of soil born diseases.

Have fun and next time you make that salsa try some ‘Cherokee Purple’ or ‘Georgia Streak’ yellow tomatoes to add some dimension and pizzazz.

Heirloom Vegetables

For centuries, gardeners have collected the seeds of the best-tasting, best-performing vegetables in their gardens for future planting. Heirloom vegetables are varieties that have come from these seeds, passed down for many generations.

Many plants are bred for longer shelf-life and other modern needs. But heirlooms have usually been selected for flavor, tenderness, and visual appeal. For many gardeners, heirloom vegetables are a cherished link to the past. Others feel that the shrinking gene pools from increased hybridization can leave plants vulnerable to disease and pests, and want to preserve genetic diversity.

Heirloom varieties that have been cultivated for many years in a particular region or microclimate are well-suited to that area's soil and climate. And unlike hybrid varieties, the seeds of heirloom vegetables can be saved and planted next season.

Leaves from different heirloom Carolina collard varieties.
Photo by Mark Farnham, USDA/ARS.

Starting an Heirloom Vegetable Garden

T hink of heirloom vegetables—sometimes referred to as heritage vegetables—and you'll probably envision tomatoes of the Yellow Brandywine, Green Zebra, pear, or fuzzy peach varieties. But a trip to the farmers' market or a well-stocked local produce shop will highlight the multitude of produce considered heirloom, including melons, cucumbers, and squash. The term heirloom applies to plants that have a traceable lineage and have been grown for many years. (Exact timelines vary, but the "youngest" heirlooms might date back to the mid 20th century, and many are decades if not a century older.) Other key characteristics for heirlooms are that they are open-pollinated (relying on nature—insects, wind—for pollination), and they produce true-to-type offspring, generating identical traits in each successive crop.

So what's the buzz about? Most people grow heirloom vegetables for their superior, "truer" flavor, but the gardeners' motivations may be many, according to Jere Gettle, coauthor of The Heirloom Life Gardener: The Baker Creek Way of Growing Your Own Food Easily and Naturally (Hyperion) and cofounder of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. Gardening with heirlooms provides a way to participate in a local, sustainable agriculture and economy creates a tangible (and edible) connection to your food and its history and offers a means to diversify and customize your garden.

Whatever compels you to grow heirloom varieties of your favorite vegetables, this can be a fun and rewarding endeavor for even a beginner gardener. Some heirloom vegetables are easier to cultivate than others—depending on the environment, climate, and the inherent characteristics of a specific variety—but as Gettle points out, "everyone was growing heirloom varieties up until about 50 or 60 years ago," when corporations began to develop and trademark their own seed variations. Here, he offers some tips for growing heirloom vegetables in your garden. (For additional information, read our article on starting a vegetable garden.)

Start with Easy-to-Grow Heirloom Vegetables

1. Beets
"Both the greens and roots are edible, and do well in fairly hot or cold weather. There's really no place in the continental U.S. where they can't be grown easily and successfully."
Heirloom varieties to try planting: Detroit Dark Red, Lutz Salad Leaf, Blood Turnip, Crosby's Egyptian
Beet recipes to try:
• Beet and Beet Green Risotto with Horseradish
• Beet Flowers and Beet Greens Vinaigrette
• Golden and Long Beet Salad with Roquefort

2. Beans
"Again, there's no place in the continental U.S. where they can't be cultivated, except maybe extremely high, mountainous regions. They're super easy to grow, and in general, tolerant of heat and cold."
Heirloom bean varieties to try planting: Kentucky Wonder Pole, Turkey Craw, Rattlesnake Pole, Cherokee Long Greasy, Fin de Bagnols
Bean recipes to try:
• Dilly Beans
• Warm Green Bean Salad with Pine Nuts and Basil
• Green Bean, Yellow Bean and Cherry Tomato Salad

3. Cucumbers
"They tend to be easy, and mature a lot quicker than melons."
Heirloom cucumber varieties to try planting: Boothby's Blonde, Parisian Pickling, White Wonder, lemon cucumber, Poona Kheera
Cucumber recipes to try:
• Cucumber Apple Pickle
• Salmon and Cucumber Boats
• Chilled Minted Cucumber Honeydew Soup

4. Tomatoes
"They're so popular that even if you're a new gardener, we suggest you try growing them."
Heirloom tomato varieties to try planting: Cherokee Purple, Yellow Brandywine, Green Grape, Copia
Tomato recipes to try:
• Yellow Tomatoes Stuffed with Grilled Wild Mushrooms and Parmesan Cheese
• Grilled Heirloom Tomato and Mozzarella Sandwiches with Green Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho
• Phyllo Pizza with Smoked Mozzarella and Cherry Tomatoes

5. Peppers and Lettuce
"It's a tie. Peppers are universally fairly easy to grow, as is lettuce."
Heirloom pepper varieties to try planting: Sweet Chocolate, Orange Sun, Hungarian Sweet Wax, Gumdrop
Heirloom lettuce varieties to try planting: lollo rosso, Big Boston, Amish Deer Tongue, Cimmaron
Pepper recipes to try:
• Pork Stew with Sweet & Hot Peppers from the Abruzzo
• Grilled Tricolor Peppers
• Jamaican Hot Pepper Shrimp
Lettuce recipes to try:
• Butter Lettuce, Persimmon, Feta, and Hazelnut Salad
• Red Leaf Lettuce with Shallot Vinaigrette
• Escarole, Fennel, and Oak-Leaf Salad

Seek Heirloom Varieties That Suit Your Needs

The beauty of heirlooms is that you can find specific vegetables suited to your own tastes, growing climate, and purpose. "Almost all heirlooms were developed for variety. If you like sweet tomatoes, there are sweeter varieties. If you're looking for a large one, those exist, too." Not all heirloom varieties will necessarily taste better than, say, a hybrid from a grocery store, but as Gettle points out, "an heirloom Long Keeper tomato, for instance, may not necessarily taste any better, but unlike that supermarket hybrid, the Long Keeper will stay fresh for several months because it was developed for that purpose."

Diversify Your Garden

While it certainly makes sense to plant seeds that have been developed for your particular region or in places with similar growing conditions, it's fun to explore heirlooms from other regions and even other countries. Gettle encourages growing "varieties that reflect your own ethnic or cultural heritage, as well as types that are specific to the cuisines you like to cook." Some possibilities include the Japanese Katsura Giant Pickling melon, a Russian tomato such as Black Krim, or Padrón, a Spanish pepper variety.

Save Seeds

Seed saving at home is one way you can economize on seed costs for the next planting season, and by doing so, you'll help perpetuate heirloom varieties. For the beginner or casual seed saver, Gettle recommends growing common beans, peas, eggplant, tomatoes, and cowpeas. "They're easy because they self-pollinate [their flowers have both stigma and anthers], and they don't cross with other varieties."

Allow Produce to Ripen

In order to harvest and save seeds from your heirloom vegetables, you must allow the produce to ripen on the plant. For many vegetables and fruits, like peppers and melons, the point of ripeness coincides with when they're ready to be eaten. For vegetables that are consumed before reaching full maturity, like zucchini and summer squash, resist the urge to pluck and let the vegetable grow past what you think is its prime before digging in for the seeds. Gettle recommends taking a sample to determine the readiness of the crop: "If the seeds are soft, whitish, or hollow, they're not ripe. You'll have to wait longer before trying again."

Store Saved Seeds Properly

Seeds need to dry out before being stored in a cool, dry place. The drying process can take two to three weeks: Lay the seeds in a single layer on a surface that allows for plenty of air circulation. A simple setup such as a newspaper or paper plate in front of a sunny window will work. Use a fan to generate a gentle breeze to speed things up. When dry, store the seeds in plastic bags, glass jars, or envelopes at room temperature, or if you choose to refrigerate or freeze your seeds, try an airtight container. Properly stored, seeds will be good for next year's plantings, and even for several years to come.

Candy Roaster: North Georgia Squash (Cucurbita Maxima)

RDPixelShop / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

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This hard-to-find smaller heirloom variant of candy roaster squash hails from northern Georgia and is beloved by gardeners due to its stunning (and delicious) smooth orange flesh with green accenting. It's an annual veggie that is perfect baked, fried, or incorporated into rich, delicious pies.

Sow these heirloom seeds directly after the last frost and be sure to allow them room to grow their vines can grow over 10 feet long. Harvest when the stem turns brown and hardens around three to four months later – the squash should feel hard, too.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 12.
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun.
  • Soil Needs: Sandy, fertilized.

Are Heirloom Seeds Illegal?

When it comes to seed saving, things can get a little complicated. For the most part, the legality issues with saving seeds center around farmers. Many GMO and hybrid seeds are patented. This means that any farmers who grow the seeds must sign an agreement stating they will grow the seeds for only that year. The following year, they cannot save those same seeds and instead must purchase them again.

In the EU, it is illegal to sell any vegetable cultivar that is not included in the national list. Many believe this to be a leading cause in the loss of many heritage varieties as it is difficult and expensive to get on the list. The US protects growing plants from divisions, cuttings, and seeds, and laws vary state by state.

When it comes to heirloom plants, we enter a bit of a grey area. If you are not selling heirloom plants or their seeds, that is fine. In addition, many heirloom seeds have been around for generations, making them a part of public domain.

The Cultural Significance of Seed Saving

The legalities surrounding seed saving for farmers and other gardeners does impose on years of tradition. Before you could purchase commercial seeds, generations and gardens passed down seeds. It is a process that should still be honoured.

When slave owners forced African people onto their ships, many of the women braided seeds into their hair in order to survive and bring their culture onward. Leah Penniman talked about this cultural significance in her book Farming While Black and I highly encourage you to read it. For many, continuing to grow their seeds is honouring their ancestors’ work and legacy.

The WTO governs many rules surrounding seed saving, with many farmers in developing countries increasingly affected by the regulations. Restricting people’s access to seeds makes growing food inaccessible for many.

As our population grows and biodiversity decreases, we need people to grow healthy, sustainable food more than ever. Swapping seeds and varieties with other farmers also helps to increase biodiversity. Saving seeds holds a significance culturally and environmentally that needs to be looked at before we accept that modern corporations control seed saving.


The Moon and Stars watermelon has characteristic yellow spots that gives this variety its name.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  • ‘Moon & Stars’ is another heirloom from the Amish. These 15- to 30- pounds melons have sweet red-pink flesh. The dark green rind is covered with bright yellow spots. The leaves of the plants are also spotted.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at [email protected] or 1-888-656-9988.

Original Author(s)

Karen Russ, Former HGIC Horticulture Specialist, Clemson University
David Bradshaw, PhD, Emeritus Faculty, Clemson University

Revisions by:

Barbara H. Smith, HGIC Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson University

This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.

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