The vegetables you’ll find on the produce shelf of your local grocery store have been selected to look uniform and to sit in trucks and on shelves for weeks without spoiling. Home gardening lets you choose varieties for other qualities like flavor, color, nutrition and ease of growth. Heirloom seeds have been preserved from the time when uniformity was not the Holy Grail of seed selection. They’re also open-pollinated, not hybridized, which means that you can save and plant your own seeds.
Here are a few heirloom varieties you might want to consider:
All the varieties below are indeterminate (which means the plant keeps growing and bearing until frost kills it, and may grow quite large).
1. Cherokee Chocolate Tomatoes
The Cherokee Chocolate tomato bears 10-16 oz. crimson-red fruits with mahogany shoulders, lots of juice and a sweet, rich, complex flavor. Introduced in 2004 as a stable-color mutation of the heirloom “Cherokee Purple”, one of the best-tasting toma-toes I have encountered. 80 days to maturity.
2. Golden Jubilee
Golden Jubilee, sometimes just called Jubilee, is a sweet-tasting low-acid indeterminate tomato that matures in 80 days. Round 8 oz. fruits ripen rich yellow-gold.
3. Pink Brandywine
Pink Brandywine’s 1-lb pinkish-red pumpkin-shaped fruits are very meaty, with a classic tomato taste. When they’re good they’re very good, but Brandywine sometimes ripens late and is susceptible to catfacing and early blight. Matures in 82 days.
4. Jarrahdale Pumpkins
Jarrahdale pumpkins, heirlooms from Australia or New Zealand 9depending whom you believe), are distinctive-looking with their grey-blue color and heavy ribs. Their flavor is mild and sweet, and their flesh is stringless, taking the misery out of making fresh pumpkin pie. Not especially high-yielding. Fruits average 6-10 lbs. Flesh turns golden when cooked. Matures in 100 days.
5. Benning’s Green Tint Patty Pan Squash
Benning’s Green Tint patty pan squash is young for an heirloom, first offered for sale in 1914. It’s been praised as one of the best-tasting summer squashes. Fruits are ready to harvest when they’re 2-3” across and creamy-green in color. Matures in 55 days.
6. Lincoln English Heirloom Peas
Lincoln peas, an English heirloom, have a sweet flavor and can be high yielding. They thrive in cool wet weather, struggle in hot dry summers. Long pods hold 6-8 peas each; 3’ vines require staking. 70 days to maturity.
7. Rattlesnake Pole Beans
Rattlesnake pole beans (called Preacher Beans in parts of the South) are said to have been developed by Native Americans in the Southwest. 7-9” long beans are streaked with green and purple and have a nutty flavor. Vigorous vines can grow to 10’ tall and require strong poles to climb on. Matures in 68 days.
8. Red Russian Kale
Red Russian kale, a Siberian heirloom, has purple-red ribs and deeply cut flat leaves. Its texture is very tender for a kale, and its flavor is delicate. Unfortunately it’s also somewhat less resistant to pests and diseases than curly hybrid kales, but like Brandywine, when it’s good it’s very good indeed. Matures in 60 days.
9. Forellenschluss Trout Lettuce
Forellenschluss, which means Trout Lettuce in German, is a romaine with crisp juicy texture, which germinates, well in warm weather. The bronze spots on its bright green leaves give it its name. Matures in 56 days.
10. Chioggia Italian Beets
Chioggia beets, an Italian variety, are pink and gold rather than dark red, and their flavor is unusually light and sweet. 55 days to maturity.
11. French Breakfast Radishes
French Breakfast radishes, a Parisian introduction from the 1800s, are quick growing, crisp and tender, with elongated scarlet bodies and white tips. They get pithy earlier than many other radishes. 26 days to maturity.
12. Ailsa Craig Onions
Ailsa Craig onions, introduced in the 1800s, are white-fleshed sweet onions, which can grow up to 3 lbs each given fertile soil and plenty of moisture. Not a long-term storage onion–when I harvest and cure them in August they keep until late December–but excellent for fresh eating. 110 days to maturity.
13. Bleu do Solaize Leeks
Bleu de Solaize leeks, a 19th-century French heirloom, have fat shanks and blue-green leaves. May keep through the winter under straw mulch. 110 days to maturity.
14. Rosa Bianca Eggplant
Rosa Bianca eggplant, from Italy (of course), has 2-4 lb. lavender-streaked white fruits with creamy consistency and delicate taste. Delicious and potentially high yielding but fussy to grow. Matures in 88 days.
15. King of the North Sweet Bell Pepper
King of the North is a quick-maturing, blocky, red-ripening sweet bell pepper, which will produce fruit even for Northern growers with short seasons. May drop blossoms in very hot weather. 70 days to maturity.