What Do You Need to Know About Heirloom Vegetables?

Heirloom vegetables are a popular option for home gardeners today. “Heirloom” marked on a seed packet is probably second only to “Organic,” in terms of popularity. But have you ever wondered what it really means?

Simply put, an heirloom variety is an old-fashioned version of a vegetable or other plant that you’ve always known and loved. Heirloom vegetables are the plants your grandparents and great-grandparents would have grown in their gardens. They existed before biotech companies were patenting seeds, and before anyone had heard of GMOs. Heirloom vegetables link us back to a time before anyone thought to ask if something was grown organically – before we’d even heard the word “agribusiness.”

Many people grow heirloom vegetables because they prefer the old-fashioned taste over the flavour of today’s commercial varieties – most of which have been bred for traits such as uniformity, a single determinate harvest, and the ability to withstand the rigours of shipping over long distances. Two other traits that mark an heirloom variety are its history and the fact that it is “open pollinated.”

What makes a vegetable an heirloom? | #gardening #veggies
Heirloom vegetables link us back to a time when everything was organically grown
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Unique Vegetables – with a History!

An heirloom vegetable is a variety of plant – called a cultivar – that has a fairly long and stable history. Unlike a more recently developed hybrid, the heirloom has looked and tasted pretty much the same for decades, and sometimes even centuries. And unlike the vegetables you buy in the grocery store, an heirloom variety generally has one or two unique features that make it stand out from the rest. It might be a red, yellow, or purple carrot. It might be a tomato whose skin and flesh are green when completely ripe. Or perhaps it’s a red-skinned pumpkin or a purple-podded bean.

Most of the heirloom cultivars were grown before the 1950s, and many of them are even older than that. Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, for example, were grown as early as the 1830s. Green Hubbard squash was introduced to the American seed trade in the 1840s but had been grown in North America since 1739. The Montreal market melon was widely cultivated in the 1880s and was later saved from the brink of extinction in the late 1990s. Oftentimes, the stories behind these heirloom varieties are even more interesting than the plants themselves!

Heirloom Vegetables Are Open Pollinated

Besides a long history, the other thing that makes a plant an heirloom vegetable is open pollination. This term is a bit misleading, but what it means is that the seeds can be saved from one season to another. Plants grown from the seeds of this year’s crop will grow true to type.

That means if your tomato is a large, pink-fleshed beefsteak and you save its seeds, that’s what the seeds should produce again next year. Open pollinated crops will reliably produce the same results year after year, allowing the grower to save – and trade – seeds from one harvest to the next.

“Open Pollinated” is another designation you’ll sometimes encounter when buying seeds or plant starts. This label can be applied to any hybrid that has been stable long enough to reliably reproduce true to type, as well as to any cultivar that has an established history of successful seed saving.

The main difference between a variety marked “Open Pollinated” and one marked “Heirloom” is age. Heirloom vegetables tend to have been around longer, though just as with words like “vintage” or “antique,” there seems to be little agreement about just how long a history a plant must have before it earns the status of an heirloom vegetable.

Original content © 2015, 2016 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter

This is an expanded version of an article I originally published on the now-defunct site Elite Writers in January of 2015. It now appears on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!

5 Big Reasons to Plant Vibrant, Powerful Nasturtiums

Growing a vegetable garden is one of the best ways to lower food costs and ensure that you’re getting fresh, locally produced, organic fruits and vegetables. But organic gardeners have to find creative ways to combat disease and insects that will eat their crops. I learned today that one of my favourite flowers, nasturtium, is also a companion plant for a really wide variety of vegetables – and fruit trees too!

Companion plants can help to control insects by repelling them or making it difficult for them to find the host plants they feed on, or by acting as a trap plant that will lure hungry pests away from your food crops. Nasturtiums can do all of these things. And if you grow this plant with your tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces and other plants, you can also pick its peppery flavoured leaves and sweet tasting flowers, and enjoy them in a salad or other dish alongside your vegetables!

According to the Cornell University Extension guide to companion planting, nasturtiums are good companions to a large number of plants in both the cucurbit and cabbage families. Nasturtium will repel a large number of insect pests such as aphids, slugs, and a variety of predatory beetles. They can also be planted as a trap crop that will lure away insects such as cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae and Pieris brassicae) and thrips (order Thysanoptera.) Rodale also suggests that nasturtiums provide a habitat for predatory insects like ground beetles and spiders, that will munch on insects pests.

Using Nasturtium to Grow Healthier Cucumbers

The cucurbit family consists of not only cucumbers, but also summer and winter squash, pumpkins, gourds, and melons. Many of these crops are improved by planting nasturtiums as a companion. Nasturtiums repel cucumber beetles (genera Diabrotica and Acalymma,) squash bugs (Anasa tristis,) and whiteflies (family Aleyrodidae) which attack the plants in this family.

Plant the flowers as a border around your cucumber patch, or simply allow them to creep in among the vines. They will provide ground cover between the plants, which also helps to deter insect pests. And of course, the gorgeous orange and red flowers will look fabulous growing side by side with the yellow cucurbit blossoms!

How Nasturtium Helps Plants in the Cabbage Family

A wide variety of plants belong to the cabbage (brassica) family. You probably know that cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are brassicas, and you may also have made the connection with plants like kale. But did you know that kohlrabi, turnip, watercress, canola, and mustard are all brassicas too?

Nasturtiums repels aphids and the cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni) when planted near vegetables in the cabbage family. You can also use them as a trap crop for cabbage white butterflies, which will attack the nasturtiums instead of your brassicas.

Nasturtium as a Companion Plant for the Nightshade Family

Many of us associate nightshade with poison, but there are several food crops that belong to this family as well. Tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant all belong to this family, as do chili and bell peppers. Plants in this family can fall prey to flea beetles and Japanese beetles. Tomatoes are also plagued by aphids and whiteflies, while potatoes can be attacked by Colorado potato beetle. Planting nasturtium around your nightshades can help to repel all of these pests.

Protect Your Fruit Trees with Nasturtiums

Nasturtiums will protect a large number of fruit from the Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica.) Many fruit crops are in the rose family. Think apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and many other berries. Plant nasturtiums in a ring around the trunk of these fruit trees, or interplant them with crops like blackberries and raspberries. I think it would be very cool to plant trailing nasturtiums with strawberries in an overhead trellis!

Other Vegetables That Grow Well with Nasturtium

These vegetables can also be helped with a companion planting of nasturtiums:

Asparagus – Nasturtium repels asparagus beetle (genus Crioceris)

Beans, Peas, and other Legumes – Repels flea beetle (tribe Alticini,) Japanese beetle, Mexican bean beetle (Epilachna varivestis)

Carrot – Repels carrot fly

Celery – Use nasturtium as a trap plant for thrips

Corn – Repels flea beetle and Japanese beetle

Lettuce – Repels flea beetle

Radishes – Use as a trap crop for cabbage white butterflies


Featured Image Credit: Nasturtiums are a valuable companion plant by zrenate/Pixabay/CC0 1.0