Heirloom vegetables have risks and rewards

Advancements in bioengineering have created a plethora of seeds for the garden. Vegetables and flowers come in just about every size, shape and color. In addition, modern science has developed or bred plants resistant to many common ailments such as powdery mildew and Fusarium wilt.

With all these advances, it is interesting to see old varieties making a comeback. The rising interest in these so-called heirlooms stems from the natural and organic movement.

Heirlooms have many definitions, ranging from seeds that have been passed down from family to family, to seeds that are open pollinated, to varieties released prior to World War II. Basically, heirloom seeds come back true to their original form year after year. Modern seeds are hybrids resulting from a specific cross between two parents. Planting offspring from a hybrid may not produce a plant like the original. Many times, offspring revert back to one of the parents.

Growing the old varieties can be rewarding, as they often possess traits that have been lost through modern hybridization. But there are often less desirable traits as well.

Heirlooms evolved long before resistance to genetic disease or insects was possible. Take, for example, the Brandywine tomato, an heirloom that has probably the best flavor of any variety but can be a challenge to grow. It lacks disease resistance, making it susceptible to wilt that can wipe out the crop. This is a disappointment after you’ve gone to all the time and trouble to start seedlings and lovingly nurture them to maturity in the garden.

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