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Heirloom seeds can yield robust, tastier vegetables. Here’s what you need to know.


Is your garden planning limited to leafing through the seed packets on the rotating display at the checkout in the hardware store? Or just flip through some major gardening catalogs to order what looks right for your growing area? If so, you’re probably buying mostly hybrid and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It may be worth rethinking your approach to your plot and planting heirloom fruits and vegetables instead. These long-loved varieties are usually at least 50 years old and offer multiple benefits, and they don’t need any special equipment or growing conditions to flower.

“The regular varieties are bred for durability, long shelf life or appearance,” says Mike Bollinger, executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization based in Decorah, Iowa, that collects, catalogs and distributes heirloom seeds. “On the other hand, many heirloom varieties have been bred for canning, fresh eating and flavor.”

In other words, they can taste better.

Another advantage of heirloom seeds is that they are open-pollinated (naturally pollinated by the wind, bees, birds or other animals), meaning they grow “true to species” year after year. So, unlike some GMO and hybrid varieties, if you harvest seeds from heirloom produce, you can grow the same crop in future seasons. Yes, that’s right: seasons, plural.

Yes, it’s January. But if you want a robust spring garden, start buying seeds now.

“Seed catalog villains have convinced us that we should buy seeds every year,” says Ellen Ecker Ogden, vegetable garden designer and author of “The New Heirloom Garden: Designs, Recipes, and Heirloom Plants for Cooks Who Love to Garden.” “But if you store them properly, they can be kept for years.”

To properly store seeds, Ogden places each variety in a separate Mason jar with a desiccant pack to eradicate moisture. She keeps them in a cool, dry place that doesn’t get sun. (A closet, a kitchen cabinet away from the stove, or a basement with low humidity are all great options.) Seed life depends on the variety, but some can survive five years or more if properly cared for. being saved.

Perhaps an even deeper value to heirloom varieties is their genetic diversity. “These are unusual times in terms of climate and rainfall,” said Ira Wallace, an employee/owner of the cooperatively managed Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Virginia, which distributes heirloom and organic seeds. “The genomes of heirloom varieties are more elastic because they are not as finely bred. So when a new challenge comes, there may be resistance to it in an heirloom variety.

Plus, heirlooms can be eye-catching eye-catchers, exceeding expectations when it comes to color and hue. Tomatoes don’t have to be red, carrots aren’t always orange, and cucumbers can be more than just green.

Your spring planting schedule

Here are 10 heirloom varieties that will transform your garden beds — and meals — into delightfully beautiful riots of color.

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“They’ve always been fascinating,” says Ogden, “because they don’t look like tomatoes.” When ripe, the sweet yet tangy medium-sized fruit (perfect for BLTs) takes on a chartreuse tone with streaks of light lime, moss green, and yolk orange running down the sides.

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With beautiful purple veins running through their fan-like leaves, these collards impress. Wallace also appreciates their compact build, which makes them great for raised beds, and that the leaves cook quickly compared to other savory vegetables.

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While these regal-looking root vegetables have a reddish-purple exterior, their interior is classic orange. “They’re very sweet but also almost spicy,” says Bollinger, making them great for snacking, steaming, and frying.

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Popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the spherical, sunny-hued cuke is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. “It’s a fun one because kids love it,” says Ogden, noting that they don’t taste like lemon, but they have a bold sweet flavor that works well in salads and pickled preparations.

Listada de Gandia eggplant

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These smaller teardrop-shaped, thin-skinned eggplants laced with vibrant purple can be slid into ratatouille, lasagna, or moussaka. “They’re compact plants, so they do well in tight spaces and in pots,” says Bollinger. “And they produce a lot, so you don’t need a lot of them.”

Beijing Ta Ching Kou Pai Tsai Asian green

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This decorative brassica grows over a meter tall and has a tuft of purple leaves in the center with a ring of green leaves on the outside. A favorite of Bollinger’s, it can be prepared similarly to collard greens or collard greens.

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The golden orange chiles are not for the faint of heart, with just as much spice as habaneros. That makes them ideal for hot sauces. “Once you get past the heat, there’s a nice citrus flavor underneath,” says Bollinger.

Jimmy Nardello pepper

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“It looks like a hot pepper, but don’t worry: It’s actually sweet,” says Ogden. The Christmas red curly Italian chillies are perfect for roasting or adding nice notes to a mild salsa.

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Pear-shaped with a bright orange skin, this winter squash shines in curries and soups. Bollinger appreciates its small size, as it can be grown in smaller gardens.

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Ogden likes these Northern Italian beans with attractive reddish-brown spots, nicknamed the “shrimp bean” because of their shape. Just fry them in olive oil with thinly sliced ​​garlic to taste their fresh taste.

Nevin Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, MD. His web site is nevinmartell.com. Look him up Instagram: @nevinmartell.

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