Heirloom and Hybrid Vegetables

Vegetable expert Renee Shepherd discusses the difference between heirloom and hybrid vegetables and the advantages or disadvantages of growing each.
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Heirlooms or hybrids, open-pollinated or F-1. If you need a dictionary to make sense of what to plant in your vegetable garden, you're not alone. Given the right circumstances, all these plant types have real merits.

Heirloom Vegetables

An heirloom vegetable is an old variety that is open pollinated. This means you can save the seeds, and they'll produce true to seed the next year.

A few terms: Old varieties can refer to those that are anywhere from 50 to 400 years old. "Open-pollinated" means the flowers are pollinated by the wind or insects, therefore exposing plants to a bigger gene pool.

There's a lot of genetic variability in open-pollinated plants, says veggie expert Renee Shepherd of Felton, Calif. "So, if you grew a whole field of bull's horn peppers, there'd be a lot of difference in shape and maybe a little different color. Some of the plants would probably be a little taller, a little shorter."

Harvesting seed from the plant with the most desirable characteristics – the tastiest or the biggest pepper – helps to reduce variability and increase the success of next year's crop. But for many heirloom aficionados, it's not the unexpected flavors, colors or shapes that are so captivating, as much as the legacy that grows from one tiny seed.

That's the heart and soul of heirlooms and the thing that connects people to the past. "They have meaning and value in people's lives," says Shepherd. "They're associated with people and places, and they have stories."



The problem some gardeners have with heirlooms is that they don't produce a reliable crop, leaving a hole in a person's food supply. Shepherd recently had a different problem with heirlooms – their lack of disease resistance left a hole in her garden. "This is a good example of what you do when you get Verticillium wilt, which is a common tomato disease," she says. Verticillium wilt kills susceptible plants and multiplies rapidly without intervention. The tomato plants in Shepherd's bed were pulled, the soil removed and now she is trying to eradicate the disease with an organic method called solarization.

To start the solarization process, thoroughly wet the soil and cover it with clear plastic. It's ideal to do this at the height of the summer when there's a lot of heat. It generally takes six to eight weeks to complete the process. According to Shepherd, there's a reasonably good chance of getting rid of the Verticillium, but it's not guaranteed.

The Best Heirloom Vegetables

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Lemon Cucumber

Introduced in 1894, lemon cucumber is a taste treat worth trying. The yellow skin with green stripes is smooth, not bitter. Flesh has an almost sweet crunch and makes wonderful pickles. Pick fruits just as they’re turning yellow and lemon-sized for fresh eating, or wait until they reach tennis ball size to use them in the salad bowl.

Photo By: Johnny's Selected Seeds at JohnnySeeds.com

'Mortgage Lifter' Tomato

This bruiser hails from 1940s West Virginia, where auto mechanic Radiator Charlie Byles started breeding tomatoes in a bid to create a large-fruited plant he could sell. 'Mortgage Lifter' was the result. By selling tomato seedlings for $1, Charlie paid off his $6,000 mortgage. These large, indeterminate plants need hefty stakes to support the fruit-laden vines. Tomatoes are pink with a sweet taste, perfect for fresh eating, sandwiches and canning. Expect up to a bushel of tomatoes per plant.

Photo By: W. Atlee Burpee & Co. at Burpee.com

'Blue Hubbard' Squash

For fans of winter squash, 'Blue Hubbard' is one of the standards. The teardrop-shaped fruits typically weigh 15 to 40 pounds and keep well into winter. Flesh is golden and fine-grained (no strings). The sweet flavor enhances pies, baked goods and savory dishes like soup or chili. A sea captain delivered seeds for this squash to Massachusetts gardener Elizabeth Hubbard in 1798. In 1842, she shared seeds with a local seedsman. 'Blue Hubbard' first appeared in seed catalogs in 1909.

Photo By: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at RareSeeds.com

'Jimmy Nardello' Sweet Pepper

A Southern Italian coastal town, Ruoti, gave rise to this sweet frying pepper when immigrant Giuseppe Nardiello brought seeds to America with him in 1887. His son Jimmy followed in his father’s gardening footsteps and proliferated the seedline. 'Jimmy Nardello' peppers are red, up to 10 inches long and thin-walled, which makes them ideal for frying. They also taste great raw or pickled.

Photo By: W. Atlee Burpee & Co. at Burpee.com

'Forellenschluss' ('Trout Back') Lettuce

Toss a colorful salad by adding Forellenschluss lettuce to your garden. This pretty, maroon-speckled romaine is also known as 'Freckles' or 'Trout Back lettuce' (Forellenschluss means “speckled like a trout” in German). Plants grow best in cool weather and yield the luxuriously delicate texture and flavor of a butterhead. 'Trout Back' lettuce dates to 1660 in Holland; the seeds hit American shores in the 1790s.

Photo By: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at RareSeeds.com

'Padron' Pepper

'Padron' pepper has a long history in Galicia, Sprain, where the fruits headline in tapas (appetizer) bars. Locals saute peppers in olive oil with a sprinkle of sea salt. This simple preparation lets the smoky flavor shine. Pick fruits at 1 to 1.5 inches long. Heat occurs erratically in 'Padron' peppers, but you’ll increase the fire if you let fruits grow to 2 to 3 inches long, ripen from green to red, or allow plants to experience stress such as drought or high temperatures.

Photo By: Johnny's Selected Seeds at JohnnySeeds.com

'Trionfo Violetto' Bean

Trionfo Violetto translates from Italian as “purple triumph,” which aptly describes this pole bean. Vines bear lavender flowers, green leaves with purple veins and stems and 7- to 10-inch purple bean pods. Plants bear heavily. Vines are ornamental and easily fit into non-food production areas. Whether you’re feeding a family or putting up for winter eating, you’ll have more than enough beans when you plant 'Trionfo Violetto'. Beans turn green when cooked.

Photo By: W. Atlee Burpee & Co. at Burpee.com

'Glory of Enkhuizen' Cabbage

If you’re a sauerkraut fan, you should plant 'Glory of Enkhuizen' cabbage. Plants produce medium-large, hard, round heads that weigh upwards of 15 pounds at maturity. The solid heads don’t split easily and store well. This Dutch cabbage was introduced in 1899. After harvest, heap mulch over the cabbage stem left in the garden, and you might be rewarded with smaller heads.

Photo By: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at RareSeeds.com

'Moon and Stars' Watermelon

Choose 'Moon and Stars' watermelon if you need to feed a crowd, because these fruits range from 20 to 50 pounds. The dark green skin has yellow mottling that calls to mind a nighttime sky. Leaves are also yellow-mottled. Flesh can be red, pink or yellow. This heirloom was introduced in 1924 and was believed to be extinct until a seedsaver shared seed in 1981.

Photo By: W. Atlee Burpee & Co. at Burpee.com

'Bull’s Blood' Beet

Discover one of the most versatile heirloom veggies: 'Bull’s Blood' beet. This beauty is prized for its deep red-purple leaves, which make a terrific spinach substitute. The roots are delicious when picked young (2 to 3 inches) and boast concentric pink rings inside. Baby leaves are ready for harvest 35 days from planting; roots, 55 days. This heirloom was introduced in 1840 by a Dutch seedsman.

Photo By: Johnny's Selected Seeds at JohnnySeeds.com

'Ronde de Nice' Squash

Generations of French have tended this heirloom squash, harvesting fruits when they have a 3-inch diameter (just larger than a golf ball). The flesh has a nutty flavor. Thin skins mean fruits bruise easily; handle with care. Plants yield heavily, and fruits freeze well. Stuff larger squash for an entrée that turns heads.

Photo By: W. Atlee Burpee & Co. at Burpee.com

'Dragon Tongue' Bush Bean

A Dutch heirloom, 'Dragon Tongue' bush bean boasts many uses. To enjoy it as a fresh snap bean, pick the flat pods when they shift from lime green to yellow with purple stripes. The colorful hues fade during cooking. To harvest as a shell bean, let pods fully mature then remove the dark mottled light brown beans. Pods grow to 7 inches long.

Photo By: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at RareSeeds.com

'Amish Paste' Tomato

Many gardeners view 'Amish Paste' tomato as the best tomato for making tomato sauce. Fruit are blocky and vary in shape from oval to oxheart. They’re larger than a typical Roma and juicier, too. You can slice 'Amish Paste' onto sandwiches or use the crop for canning. This heirloom tomato hails from an Amish community in Wisconsin.

Photo By: Johnny's Selected Seeds at JohnnySeeds.com

'French Breakfast' Radish

The 'French Breakfast' radish first appeared in American seed catalogs in the late 1800s. Roots boast an oblong shape, 1.5 to 2 inches long. Scarlet tops contrast with white root tips. Plants grow fast, ripening in 20 to 30 days. Pick some of the leaves to enhance salads. This French radish lacks the bite common to its radish cousins.

Photo By: W. Atlee Burpee & Co. at Burpee.com

'Chantenay Red Core' Carrot

Select this 'Chantenay Red Core' carrot if you garden in the South or have heavy or rocky soil. This 1929 variety resists splitting and forking, even in rocky soil. Roots are 5 to 7 inches long with gold-orange flesh and a red center. Carrots store well and are a good choice for juicing or eating out of hand.

Photo By: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at RareSeeds.com

'Yellow Pear' Tomato

You may grow 'Yellow Pear' tomato for the fun shape, but you’ll keep growing it because of the fantastic flavor. The pear-shaped tomatoes have a mild, sweet, fresh flavor that tastes great fresh, in preserves or in marmalade. Once plants start bearing, they don’t stop until frost. Tomatoes average 1.5 inches long and split with abundant moisture. Gather fruit if several days of rain are in the forecast. 'Yellow Pear' appeared in a 1916 Burpee catalog.

Photo By: W. Atlee Burpee & Co. at Burpee.com


Try planting disease resistant hybrids, which are plants that have bred for certain desirable characteristics. A hybrid is called an F-1 cross, meaning the selection of a male and a female for their specific traits that was hand-crossed to retain those traits in the offspring.



For example, you might want tomatoes with superior disease resistance that are also medium-sized and good for slicing. Through controlled pollination, plant breeders can develop hybrids, like 'Carmello,' that offer those traits.

The biggest disadvantage to using hybrids is that seeds taken from F-1 hybrids, or the first filial generation, aren't reliable for staying to true to seed. "Of course, you can save the seed. It would grow tomatoes, but they wouldn't be reliably consistent in having the same traits," says Shepherd. "You'd get a whole range because you wouldn't have the specific parents that you put together to get specific traits."



With advantages and disadvantages to both heirlooms and hybrids, Shepherd recommends growing some of everything. "Find what you like, find what works in your garden, and then do that because gardening is an art – it's a fun art."Even though they're grown to eat, heirloom tomatoes produce a visually interesting platter, such as marble striped, orange yellow and classic red.



Even her hybrids are showy. "These are very uniform. They're round and red, the same size, and I can depend on them to consistently look like this," says Shepherd. Their dependability can mean the difference between a bountiful harvest and a bust.

Heirlooms offer excitement, while hybrids offer security. There's only one word you need to remember in creating successful gardens: diversity. "In my experience, heirlooms are better for certain places and certain reasons, and hybrids have huge advantages, too, so I always plant some of both," says Shepherd.

You don't need a dictionary to tell you how scrumptious homegrown veggies can be. That's the biggest reward of growing your own: sinking your teeth into the fruits of your labor.

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