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submitted by Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator
Most gardeners are aware of the increasing interest heirloom vegetables have received in recent years. Just visit your local farmer's market in the summer and you're likely to find a wide variety of heirloom vegetables available with many unique shapes and colorations. But exactly what are heirloom plants?
Some horticulturists define heirloom plants by the number of years the cultivar has been grown. (The term "cultivar" stands for a cultivated variety of plant with it's own specific characteristics that are carried on through each generation.) Many authorities classify any cultivar developed before 1951 as an heirloom, this being the time before plant breeders introduced the first hybrid vegetable cultivars. Many heirloom vegetables can trace their heritage back for hundreds of years, such as the dry bean 'Hidatsa' which was raised by the Hidatsa tribe of North Dakota. Finally, some growers define heirlooms as lines of plants, grown locally or regionally, that have been passed down through families or groups.
All heirloom plants are open pollinated – meaning that seed from these varieties can be saved each year by home gardeners and will grow 'true to type' from seed each time. In other words, plants grown from seed will look exactly like the parent plant did, having the same plant size and growth habit, as well as fruit size, color and flavor. Before 1951 and the increased use of hybrid plant varieties, which do not 'come true' from seed, gardeners normally saved their own seed each year. They chose to save seed from their best tasting and most productive plants and gradually developed their own special cultivars or varieties.
Some gardeners choose to plant heirloom vegetable varieties today because of their superior taste. Others enjoy the connection to the past that heirloom vegetables represent. Still others enjoy the wide variety of colors and shapes, as well as flavors, to be found among heirloom vegetables. Maintaining the diverse genetic base that heirloom vegetables represent is also important so that their genetic traits are not lost.
One drawback to planting heirloom vegetables in your garden is their lack of disease resistance compared to modern vegetable cultivars. Resistance to common disease problems, such as Verticillium and Fusarium wilt, is not found in most heirloom varieties, which requires gardeners to take additional steps to minimize disease problems. Planting your vegetables in containers filled with a soil-less planting mix, or using a strict rotation schedule in the garden are techniques you could use to reduce the incidence of soil-borne disease affecting your plants.
To locate seed for many great heirloom vegetable varieties, visit your local garden center or check out Seed Savers Exchange, http://www.seedsavers.org/.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office