Heirloom Gardening: Stories, Beauty, and Taste

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Guest post by Diane Ott Whealy*, photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

Many summer evenings during my childhood were spent visiting my grandparents’ farm near St. Lucas, Iowa. After supper when Dad was done with evening milking, we would drive over winding gravel roads to their farm. There were many small gardens scattered throughout their yard and I sensed the pride they took in them. After all, they raised nine children during the Depression, and Grandma’s grocery list consisted of flour, sugar, coffee, salt, and spices. I remember how she took a gallon jug to the store to be filled with brown vinegar from a wooden barrel for her pickles. The rest of their food came from what their hands and land produced, and a bountiful crop was a measure of their success.

One of my fondest gardening memories of those visits was ending our evening garden walks on the porch. Grandpa Ott had morning glories trained on twine that made an enclosed wall of those beautiful vining flowers, leaving an opening just big enough to look out. The porch felt like a special outdoor room, safe and cozy, a wonderful place to sit and listen to my grandparents’ stories.

For my parents and grandparents, store-bought seed—like store-bought anything else—was a luxury. I saw them save seed from year to year as their parents and grandparents had done. Every year, just before school started, I’d help Grandpa pluck seedpods off the morning glory vines. The pods turned beige when they were ripe and we put them in a small white pill box just before they burst onto the ground. We knew that enough seed would fall from the vines to self-seed, but Grandpa saved extra seed to give to visitors who admired those deep purple blossoms. (Before long the entire community was sprouting with Grandpa Ott’s morning glories). As I helped him in the garden it never occurred to me that I was doing anything out of the ordinary, or that the simple act of saving these morning glory seeds would someday describe my life’s work.

Of course I never thought much about heirloom plants as a child. But when I had my first garden, I asked my grandfather for his morning glory seed. He handed me one of those small white pill boxes filled with the tiny black seed and told me this seed came into the country when my great grandparents immigrated to Iowa in the early 1900s. After he passed away I felt a responsibility to keep these seeds and stories alive, each seed became a living link back to my ancestors. This was the inspiration that was the impetus for beginning Seed Savers Exchange, and it’s my hope to inspire others to help preserve our garden heritage.

My gruff tattooed 300 lb grandfather would be very surprised with how popular his morning glories have become, and he would be amused at this sudden resurgence of heirloom seed. Actually, he wouldn’t even know what it meant. I will admit even I find it confusing these days; the term heirloom has been used to describe everything from a tomato to a hamburger! At Seed Savers Exchange we define an heirloom as a cultivar that is open pollinated, has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family or community member to another for many generations, and is accompanied with a story (such as Grandpa Ott’s morning glory). Every seed has a story, and true heirlooms bring beauty, diversity, and history into gardens as well as great taste.

Seed Savers Exchange has been a pioneer in saving and collecting heirloom seed for more than 35 years. Today thousands of accessions of open-pollinated seeds are grown and preserved at Heritage Farm. The question that is impossible for me to answer is, “What is my favorite?” There is no darling of the heirloom seed collection. It would be like a mother trying to single out her pet child. Each seed, like children, has its own unique genetic makeup of personalities, flaws, and gifts. But when we plant these heirloom seeds, we become part of the story and the next generation of seed savers in this chain. Below are a few of the staples in my heirloom garden, but warning: these are just the tip of the iceberg.

We thought this legendary melon was long-lost, but it was rediscovered by Seed Savers Exchange at the Merle Van Doren farm in Macon, Missouri. The dark green oval melons are covered with pea-sized bright yellow “stars” and usually one larger “moon.” The leaves also have the same design. The sweet pink flesh is excellent. Matures in 90-95 days and is well worth the wait.

This was given to Seed Savers Exchange in 1977 by Chloe Lowry, our 90-year old neighbor in Missouri. The seed was handed down from one of her ancestors, George Admire, a civil war veteran born in 1822. Bronze-tinged leaves form loose heads, stays crisp and sweet even in extremely hot temperatures and slow to bolt. Butterhead, 60 days.

One of the original Bavarian varieties that started Seed Savers Exchange. These plants now have a permanent home on the south side of Heritage Farm’s barn where they grow up to over 15 feet and are covered with delicate velvet petaled flowers. It is a hardy self-seeding annual.

My family only grew one tomato variety, and this was it. This tomato was grown by my great-great-grandparents in Bavaria long before I was born. This potato leaf plant produces large (1-to-2-pound) meaty, full-flavored fruits. Excellent for sauces and slicing, I remember my grandmother serving large slices sprinkled with sugar on a white platter. Indeterminate, 85 days from transplant.

This heirloom pole bean was discovered by Henry Fields in an Ozark garden in the 1930’s. Plants climb vigorously to 6 feet and are very productive, flavorful and meaty. The 5-7 inch red-purple stingless pods blanch to green. The blossoms are also purple, making this bean an excellent choice for edible landscapes. I grow these on a trellis and plant basils, French tarragon and snapdragons interspersed in a row below the plants. 68 days to maturity.

First appeared in England around 1570. Some very imaginative folk names include Love-Entangle and Jack-in-Prison. I grow these because every part of this plant is decorative: the leaves, blossoms, and the intriguing striped seedpods add interest in the garden and dry well. It is hard to resist popping the seedpods when they are green because they pop like little balloons! Self-seeding, hardy annual, 18-24″ tall.

This is another garden staple grown on my grandmother’s Iowa farm since 1920. I grew up on that same farm and remember the dill. I would take large bunches of it to the Winneshiek County fair each summer and I always won blue ribbons. The fragrant heads are large with plump seeds, for dill pickles, summer salads, or fabulous filler for summer flower bouquets. The ferny tall dill foliage adds splendor and fragrance to any garden. Self-seeding annual.

Introduced as ‘Ruby Gold’ by John Lewis Childs of Floral Park, New York, in his 1921 catalog. Ben Quisenberry renamed it ‘Gold Medal’ and listed it in his 1976 catalog: “The sweetest tomato you ever tasted. The yellow with streaks of red makes them very attractive and a gourmet’s joy when sliced.” Our finest bi-colored tomato—winner of the 2008 SSE Tomato Tasting. Indeterminate, 75-90 days from transplant. This tomato reminds me of a tree ripened peach, not only because of the color but because it can be eaten like a peach in the garden, fresh from the vine, and has that same warm juicy sweet flavor.

Rarely offered and almost extinct. SSE is pleased to reintroduce this variety. Distinct curled green snap bean. Stringless, tender, and delicious. Pole habit, snap, 75 days. These beans are delicious, and the color and crescent shape are a lovely addition to any salad or just by themselves. After our guest chef, Deborah Madison used them at our ‘Seed to Table’ dinner, she mentioned they are now her new favorites.


The recipe below is one my favorites because most ingredients are ready at the same time in my garden. I use different colors of heirloom tomatoes like Gold Medal and interesting shaped beans like the Sultan’s Green and Golden Crescent.

Marinated Beans with Heirloom Tomato

INGREDIENTS

  • 1½ pounds snap beans, ends trimmed
  • medium heirloom tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 bunch chives
  • ¾ cup red wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup plus
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

DIRECTIONS

Bring 1 gallon of heavily salted water to a boil. Cook beans 5 to 6 minutes. Strain beans and rinse with cold water. Meanwhile, finely chop chives and combine with red wine vinegar, olive oil, sugar, paprika, garlic, salt and pepper. Coarsely chop tomatoes and combine with beans in medium-size bowl. Pour dressing over top and stir gently to mix. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours (the longer the better), stirring every hour or so.

*Diane Ott Whealy is the Co-founder and Vice President of Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization that seeks to maintain thousands of endangered heirloom seed varieties. It's headquartered on scenic 890-acre Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa.