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Heirloom vegetables: Are they better than hybrids?

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Courtesy of Gerald Burke

(Read caption) This is John Kinnear’s garden in California. Like many gardeners nowadays, he grows many heirloom tomato varieties.

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I had a reader ask me not long ago, “What do they mean when they say that a vegetable is an heirloom?”

Good question, since to me many of the so-called heirlooms of today I remember as new introductions to the gardening scene. I remember many of them being highly praised for their taste, good growing habit, and ease of culture.

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In the past few years, gardeners have found that many of the older varieties are as good if not better than many of the newly introduced varieties. This is often found in tomatoes, but is true of other vegetables as well.

Heirlooms growing in popularity

Many of the new hybrids are great, but many of the older varieties are just as good, and gardeners have been finding this out. So, many of the old varieties are once again listed in many catalogs and labeled as “heirlooms.”

I was reminded of this when I got a brochure advertising the National Heirloom Exposition to be held in Santa Rosa, Calif., at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. It will be held Sept. 13, 14, and 15, and will have a large display of heirloom produce, up to, they say, more than 3,000 varieties of heirlooms. Click here to check it out.

Fans of heirlooms

Am I a gardener who loves heirlooms? Well, maybe. Yes, I grow some heirlooms, but I also grow many new varieties as they come on the market. My son-in-law, John Kinnear, is a great proponent of heirlooms, especially tomatoes, and he swears by them as the best. (See the photo of his garden above.)

Bill MacDowell, who was president of the Burpee Seed Co. when I worked there, grows heirlooms, too, but, he says, “I am not an heirloom nut.” Bill is growing more than 60 tomato varieties this year, and he says half of them might qualify as heirlooms.

His many tomatoes, as well as other produce he grows, are sold at his so-called “charity” vegetable stand. “It’s open 24/7," he says, "with a coffee can, my mother’s scale, and a price list.” The honor system works most of the time, but a few people don't pay.

Mr. MacDowell gives the proceeds of the vegetable sales at his stand go to five different groups in Bucks County, Pa.

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So these experiences show that there are plenty of excellent heirlooms out there, and, in my opinion, even more good, new introductions each year for discriminating gardeners. They both have a place in our gardens.


Gerald Burke is a travel and horticultural writer who lives in southern California. He spent more than 30 years in the seed business and is a member of the Garden Writers Association. To read more of what he has written here at Diggin' It, click here.