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Mansfield Magazine

Bequest The Best

Jul 25, 2013 09:59AM ● By Lisa Drake
By Mary Phillips at Forgotten Works Garden Gallery

Noun:  A valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations.
Synonyms: heritage – inheritance

Heirloom plants are the hottest topic among gardeners these days, as many believe we are at a crossroads in our planet's horticultural and agricultural history.  The number of varieties of crops available to us (particularly food crops) – along with the genetic diversity that follows – is declining at an alarming rate.  This diversity is our food-and-flower insurance policy, assuring us that somewhere within the vast gene pool of plant life are cultivars that have survived the millennia in response to changing conditions.  Using heirloom plants in your landscape is a wonderful way help preserve these dwindling populations, while also keeping the local flavors and colors of North Texas alive for generations to come.

Unfortunately there is no standard for what actually constitutes an heirloom plant variety, but don't let that stop you.  Some people try to define “heirloom” by age or date, such as 1945, when WWII ended, or as any plant that originated before 1951 (after which hybridization became popular). The most widely accepted definition of what constitutes an heirloom is quite liberal as long as two criteria are met:  that it is an open-pollinated variety and was grown in an earlier era. Some heirlooms are hundreds of years old, and others originated around the turn of the 20th century. My favorite way of defining heirloom cultivars is to use the definition of the word "heirloom" in its truest sense - one that has been nurtured, selected and handed down within a community for many generations.  

Heirloom plants hold great appeal to home gardeners - and organic gardeners in particular. Some of the reasons include:

  • Local Adaptation. When you can find a crop that has been grown successfully right here in North Texas for generations, you know that it is a survivor.  It inevitably tolerates our climate and is going to be resistant to the pests that live here, too.
  • Variety. When you have access to plants that were grown by previous generations, you also get to experience the thrill of having a huge variety of plants available to you. For example, the Seed Savers Exchange, which deals solely in heirlooms, has over a hundred varieties of tomatoes available!

  • Better Flavor. In many cases, hybridizers have chosen properties like disease resistance and heavy yields over flavor. Fans of heirlooms will argue that many of the best tasting crops come from heirloom plants.

  • Biogenetic Diversity. Plant species are dying out at an alarming rate. Heirloom gardeners, through growing and saving seeds of treasured crops, are ensuring that these plants won't become extinct. In addition, keeping diversity in our food chain protects us against large plagues or crop failures.  

  • Frugality. Growing heirlooms is a frugal way to have a bountiful garden. Every year you can grow the crop, harvest the food, save the seeds, and store them to grow next year's garden. If you save a lot of seed, you might even consider getting involved in seed exchanges with other heirloom gardeners, in order to include more diversity in your garden.

To get started with a collection of your own heirloom plants, try these resources:

Baker Creek Seed Company –
Seed Savers Exchange –
Native Seeds/SEARCH –
Native American Seed –
Sustainable Seed Company –

My favorite varieties that I recommend you try:
Chard: Five Color Silverbeet
Collard: Georgia Southern
Cucumber: Beit Alpha
Green Beans: Roma II Bush Beans
Melon: Charentais
Mustard Greens: Giant Southern Curled
Pea: Sugar Snap
Pepper: Red Marconi
Radish: Early Scarlett Globe
Squash: Tatume
Tomato: Black Krim and Black Cherry

It won't be long before your whole neighborhood is hooked on heirlooms. Sharing and trading seeds and cuttings within your community builds friendships, encourages healthy eating habits and therefore reduces medical costs and offers a measure of security in times of drought or other crisis.  Growing these heritage varieties is bound to leave you feeling satisfied, secure and enriched, knowing that you are playing an important role in American history: that of a small suburban gardener who is helping save our country's food and cultural inheritances.

Are you befuddled about beets? Curious about cantaloupe? Interested in Irises? Mary will gladly help you with your gardening concerns - post your questions here. 

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