Heirloom Gardening Page

Why Heirloom Vegetables?

You are probably wondering why a page on heirloom vegetables. Well, I didn’t understand it till recently either, but let me tell you the story. Gardening is something that has been a part of my life since my parents moved to the country a couple of years after I was born. Being poor and rural required mom and dad have a large garden to make the few dollars my dad brought home stretch a little farther and gave us a respectable standard of living. Growing our own food made it possible to both have a well-balanced diet and buy the few luxuries that we had. Even so, I think that poor or not; it is likely that we would still have had a large garden every summer with all the planting, weeding, canning, and other labor that comes with it. There was something beyond producing our food than just the economics of it, it was part of a family tradition passed down from our great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents, and we thought there was no other way to live.

Extensive gardens were always a central part of rural living, likely even before my ancestors had immigrated from Europe. I can remember the gardens of both my grandmothers, and my great-grandmother in my childhood years consisting of both vegetables and fruit trees, and rows and rows of flowers. I also remember the vast garden my parents grew, the smell of the soil on a warm spring day as we tilled for planting, weeding, the picking, hours and hours of shelling beans, corn, peas, and other hated tasks. The smell of vinegar to make pickles and ketchup, and plowing under manure from the local farmer in the fall. Most of all, I remember eating all that we had canned and froze in mid-January, while the local stores carried pitiful, limp looking things that sure didn’t look like what you had grown the summer before.

beyond heirloom tomatoesIt wasn’t something that I analyzed too much at the time: you grew up understanding that if you lived in the country, you raised your fruits and vegetables. And what you couldn’t grow yourself, you traded or bought from the family down the road. Buying produce at the grocery store was for city folk. It was just one of those unwritten rules. It went beyond survival: it was a superior way to live. There was nothing like the first tomato or a slice of watermelon on a hot summer day. Or opening a jar of corn cob jelly to put on home-made toasted bread, apple cider from the farmer down the road, or fresh milk from the local dairy. And most of all going downstairs on a cold winter day, with drifts 4 feet deep, to pop open a jar of homemade dill pickles just to munch on. And homemade butter, fresh ground flour, and home killed meat. There was a real sense of pride and satisfaction that came with living the rural lifestyle; you felt like a king even though you barely had shoes on your feet because you could grow and make things that were ten times better than anything you could buy in the store. Even more, you were carrying on the tradition that your great-great-grandparents had begun 150 years before. It was just a part of your heritage. You didn’t question it, and it was who you were.

Value of Self-Sufficiency

Despite my upbringing, I didn’t understand the value of heirlooms though until recently. When I started moving toward self-sufficiency, I quickly learned the importance of seed-saving in maintaining a homestead, because growing and saving seed from any open-pollinated variety allows the grower to produce true-to-type seed year after year With enough skills and experience, anyone can develop a self-sustaining food production system with even a small amount of space. That alone is appealing. But what I didn’t realize until after I had grown my first vegetables from actual heirloom varieties, generally considered to be those developed before 1925, was their value beyond the ability to save their seed and improve them year after year. What amazed me is how much better they were than what we have today. Many newer varieties have been stabilized and are now considered open-pollinated, and even though they are still miles ahead of many of the new hybrids, they still don’t compare to the old heirlooms. Regarding taste and nutrition, that is where the real treasure lies. Those genetic traits weren’t bred out in favor of surviving long-distance shipping and shelf life like they often are in many of those created in the last 50 years. In other words, tomatoes taste like tomatoes. It made me realize what my grandparents were saying when they talked about the old days, and how truly better their food was, even better than what I grew up on, (we raised mostly hybrids) despite all the technological progress we have made since. In fact, the whole experience makes me question a little bit just how much we had come along since that time.

harvesting your produceGrowing up in the 70’s and 80’s, the kids at school looked at anything not bought in a store as inferior in quality and the whole rural thing as generally lame and hick. They couldn’t wait to get out of our backwater and move to the city, and eagerly anticipated for the next technology to make life easier, regardless of the implications. By the time I graduated from high school, I had bought into that thinking too, despite my background, and I set my goals on living in a large city with a big career. That was around the height of the 80’s rural crisis when jobs left for the cities or overseas, small towns died, and many families lost their farms, jobs, and businesses. Eventually though, after teaching myself economics, I began to realize that the American desire for the convenient, high tech, mass produced, white bread suburbanite lifestyle is doing nothing but furthering centralization of our markets and dependence on the technology that sustains it, making us vulnerable to disaster. It is not the solution, but the problem, because our nation is becoming more and more reliant on an ever smaller circle of corporate producers who have survived the merger game to supply the market, and it is killing the rural economy and the culture with it. This is especially true of the produce industry.

Independence from the Centralized System

We are today dependent on two major production areas for the majority of our fresh fruits and vegetables: Florida, and California because they can grow year around. Due to the distances involved to reach their markets, these producers have gone to techniques that allow them to market as much produce to as many people as possible with minimum loss of spoilage. What this has meant is breeding varieties through hybridization that survive more prolonged periods of storage and long shipping distances with little damage. Unfortunately, taste and nutrition often bred out as well. Not to mention the application chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, all of which serve to lower the quality of the food. Many city dwellers think tomatoes in January is a triumph of modern technology, but any person who has had home-grown produce knows the quality and nutrition doesn’t even compare to canned. We have given up a lot for a little convenience.

Furthermore, because our centralized system relies on a small stable of varieties that fit their specific requirements, there is a significant danger of one of their crops being wiped out from a particularly nasty strain of the disease. At the same time, hundreds of varieties are disappearing as they are taken out of catalogs or no longer saved when an old grower dies. Fortunately, several seed saving societies have stepped up to protect some of these from disappearing forever. However, the loss of varieties commercially available to the public is still decreasing rapidly, and as any person with common sense knows, putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea. Abandoning our roots for convenience has made us vulnerable to a significant national calamity, a real possibility because of our massive debt and trade deficits, which I feel will eventually lead to economic collapse. In the old days, even in the cities, people grew vegetables and occasionally even animals on their porches, roofs, and backyard lots, sometimes in substantial quantities. And they would often trade among the neighborhood and purchase local produce at the market. Even there they could be relatively self-sufficient, but that attitude was abandoned a long time ago. It lasted a little longer in the countryside, and fortunately, I was able to experience some of that, but even in rural areas now the few people left only raise enough out of their garden for the summer and don’t can or store much. And very, very few bother to plant open-pollinated varieties and save the seed.

Producing Food Without the Convenience

At this point in our history, we are entirely dependent on food supplied from a few producers thousands of miles away. Like the rest of our centralized, highly interdependent, just-in-time economy, I am not sure our retail food distribution system could survive any real test, like a massive crop failure due to blight or bug, weather, or transportation disruptions. If the stores were to run out of food because of some disaster, 99% of all Americans would starve. Like it or not, the odds are that one day it will happen. A yuppie career, six-figure salary, and a high-rise condo won’t mean much if the shelves are bare.

organic vegetable growingGetting into heirloom gardening has made me realize the value of producing your food. Whether on the back porch or in the back 40, growing your own vegetables and saving the seed means having independence, even if only partially, and growing heirlooms is independence in style. Their superior taste and nutrition give you more bang for your dollar and effort. Because of what may be coming down the road, I believe it is critical that Americans stop their dependence on our convenience-based system and learn to produce food for themselves again, especially with varieties of superior food value. What I have trying to do with this site is pass along what I have learned from books and personal experience on how to raise and store food, and do it with low-tech tricks and techniques that can be done on a limited budget and avoid unnecessary expense. The goal is to give you the information to turn your property into a complete, self-sustaining food production system. Regardless of your opinion of the prospects for the future, heirloom gardening will give you far more nutritious eating than what you can get in the store and will free you from another winter of high priced, low quality produces. Then again, it may also mean, just like when I was growing up, being able to make it when times are rough.