“Mainstream varieties are bred for durability, long shelf life or appearance,” says Mike Bollinger, executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization based in Decorah, Iowa, that collects, catalogues and distributes heirloom seeds. “On the other hand, a lot of heirloom varieties were bred with canning, fresh eating and flavor in mind.”
In other words: They can taste better.
Another advantage to heirloom seeds is they are open-pollinated (naturally pollinated by the wind, bees, birds or other animals), meaning they grow “true to type” year after year. So, unlike with some hybrid varieties, if you harvest seeds from heirloom produce, you can grow the same crop in future seasons. Yes, that’s right: seasons, plural.
“Seed-catalogue villains have convinced us that we have to buy seeds every year,” says Ellen Ecker Ogden, kitchen garden designer and author of “The New Heirloom Garden: Designs, Recipes, and Heirloom Plants for Cooks Who Love to Garden.” “But if you store them properly, they keep for years.”
To properly preserve seeds, Ogden places each variety in a separate Mason jar with a desiccant pack to eradicate moisture. She stores them in a cool, dry place that doesn’t receive any sun. (A closet, a kitchen cupboard away from the stove or a basement with low humidity are all great options.) A seed’s lifespan depends on the variety, but some can survive five years or longer if properly stockpiled.
Perhaps an even deeper value to heirloom varieties is their genetic diversity. “These are unusual times in terms of climate and rainfall,” says Ira Wallace, a worker/owner of the cooperatively managed Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Va., which distributes heirloom and organic seeds. “The genomes of heirloom varieties are more elastic, since they haven’t been bred so finely. So, when a new challenge comes along, there might be a resistance to it in an heirloom variety.”
On top of all that, heirlooms can be eye-catching head-turners, defying expectations when it comes to coloration and hue. Tomatoes don’t need to be red, carrots aren’t always orange, and cucumbers can be more than basic green.
Here are 10 heirloom varieties that will transform your garden beds — and meals — into deliciously gorgeous riots of color.
Green Zebra tomato
“They have always been fascinating,” Ogden says, “because they don’t look like tomatoes.” When ripe, the sweet yet tangy medium-size fruit (perfect for BLTs) takes on a chartreuse tone with streaks of light lime, mossy green and yolky orange running down the sides.
Alabama Blue collards
With beautiful purple veins running through their fan-like leaves, these collards make an impression. Wallace also appreciates their compact build, making them well-suited to raised beds, and that the leaves cook quickly compared with other hearty greens.
Although these regal-looking root vegetables have a reddish-purple exterior, their insides are classic orange. “They’re very sweet but almost spicy, too,” Bollinger says, making them great for snacking, steaming and roasting.
Popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the spherical, sunny-hued cuke is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. “It’s a fun one, because kids love them,” says Ogden, who notes that they don’t taste like lemon but that they have a boldly sweet flavor that works well in salads and pickled preparations.
Listada de Gandia eggplant
Streaked with vibrant purple, these smaller teardrop-shaped eggplants with thin skin can be slipped into ratatouille, lasagna or moussaka. “They’re compact plants, so they do well in tighter spaces and in pots,” Bollinger says. “And they produce heavily, so you don’t need a lot of them.”
Peking Ta Ching Kou Pai Tsai Asian green
Growing to more than three feet tall, this ornamental brassica features a tuft of purple leaves at the center with a ring of green ones on the outside. A favorite of Bollinger’s, it can be prepared similarly to kale or collards.
Fatalii hot pepper
The golden-orange chiles are not for the faint of heart, packing as much punch as habaneros. That makes them great for hot sauces. “Once you get past the heat, there’s a nice citrusy flavor underneath,” Bollinger says.
Jimmy Nardello sweet pepper
“It looks like a hot pepper, but don’t worry: It’s actually sweet,” Ogden says. The Christmas-red curly Italian chiles are perfect for frying or for adding nice notes to a mild salsa.
Pear-shaped with a blazing-orange skin, this winter squash shines in curries and soups. Bollinger appreciates its diminutive size, because it can be grown in smaller gardens.
Anellino di Trento beans
Ogden loves these Northern Italian beans with attractive red-brown mottling, nicknamed the “shrimp bean” thanks to their shape. Simply sauté them in olive oil with thinly sliced garlic to savor their fresh flavor.