Edible Gardening

Heirloom Vegetables for Beginners


Many home gardeners dream of trying heirloom vegetables in their own backyards, but don’t know where to start. After all, a glance at some seed catalogues can list hundreds of varieties. Maybe it’s just easier to recycle the catalogues and depend on the farmers’ markets?

Brandon Walton

Brandon Walton

Don’t surrender before you try, says Brandon Walton, a Durham County Extension Master Gardener intern who has been growing vegetables for as long as she can remember.

Heirloom vegetables, which are commonly defined as those varieties that have been handed down for several generations, are popular for their excellent flavor. But just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re difficult to grow.

“Some heirlooms can be very disease resistant,” says Walton. “That’s actually why they exist.” She explains that farmers and home gardeners who selected the seeds of their most resilient plants helped to develop varieties that can withstand the insults of local conditions.

Such locally adapted seed is the best place to start, she says. Using seeds saved from plants that repeatedly perform well in your local growing conditions means less fussing, coddling, and fewer pesticides. So the home gardener should obtain seeds from local garden centers or better yet, from local farms or farmers’ markets, your neighbors, or the Durham County Library’s free seed library.

She advises gardeners to grow a variety of plants, depending on what they like. “Some years are good tomato years, some years are good pepper years or melon years,” she says. By growing a diversity of vegetables, “you’ll be happy with something.”

All fruiting vegetables need at least six hours of sun per day. Regular fertilizer and water are essential to plant health and good fruit production. A 1 to 2-inch layer of organic mulch, replenished in midsummer, will suppress weeds and soil-borne fungal diseases.

But the biggest cultural control, she advises, is knowing what you bring into the garden. She grows most of her plants from seed, but when she can’t, she isolates the transplant in a nursery bed where she can observe the newcomer for a while. “A nursery-grown plant is shipped to market long before the grower knows whether it’s carrying a virus or other disease. If it’s grown in more realistic cirumstances like a home garden, you’ll know if you have a disease problem in four weeks.”

Gardeners should “always be ready for disease and pests, always!,” Walton says. “Visual inspection is key. Nothing replaces having eyes on the garden. Early intervention is important as well, sometimes you can quickly isolate and, if necessary, remove a plant. It’s just an opportunity to try something else!”

She offers a final tip for new gardeners: Central North Carolina offers a long growing season, but most vegetables can’t perform for the length of the season. “Heirloooms are not happy in August. They’re tired. They’ve been trying to serve their genetic purpose by reproducing, and after four months, they’re exhausted.”

To enjoy the benefits of our 6-month growing season, she suggests staggering the start times of vegetable plants, planting some out in mid- to late June or July. They’ll need plenty of water in the early going, but by the time they’re ready to set fruit, the worst of the summer heat will be past, but there will still be time before frost for them to do their work.

Walton, who mentors new gardeners at the Briggs Avenue community garden in Durham, recommends a few reliable heirloom varieties with which new gardeners can build their confidence.

Tomatoes: ‘Chocolate Cherry’ or ‘Brandywine.’ “’Brandywine’ is one of the sturdiest plants I’ve ever grown,” she says, noting that they performed for her even in southern Arizona. “And they have great, great flavor.”

Cucumber: ‘Dar,’ a bush cucumber whose vines only reach 2’ tall, is good for pickling and slicing. It’s resistant to powdery and downy mildew, making it resilient in our humid summers. She also recommends Armenian cucumbers. “They’re not a true cucumber; they’re actually a melon. It looks like a snake—you harvest them at 12 to 18 inches long—but they never get bitter.”

Green beans: ‘Painted Lady’ pole beans are good fresh or shelled. ‘Blue Lake’ bush beans are excellent performers. “They’ve been around forever,” Walton says. “There’s a reason for that.”

Amy Hill is a Durham County Master Gardener and blogs about gardening at MissingHenryMitchell.com.

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