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GARDEN MAIDEN: Experimenting with heirloom varieties

Herbs, flowers and vegetables all have heirloom seeds

Is there a meter somewhere between empty-nesting and middle age that sets us back to wanting everything vintage?

It happens a lot lately. Where I’d rather pay money for a rusted pail than a brand new, shiny remake. Skipping the triple-digit investment in a single resin pot in favor of repurposing brightly colored metal barrels at half the cost and twice the success rate of blooms and structures withstanding summer storms. Thankfully, I have a like-minded husband who allows me ample latitude when navigating the fine line between junking and refurbishing.

And just like furnishings and yard art, we strike an equal balance between old and new in our gardens.

Sometimes called heirloom seeds, especially when referring to vegetable plants, heritage seeds are cultivars grown at least 50 years ago, with many cultivars dating back hundreds of years and a few remaining unchanged for thousands of years when civilizations shifted from wild foraging to cultivation of crops.

I’ve learned in growing vegetables that I do prefer the taste and growth habits of heirlooms, with only a few picks in the veggie garden allotted to perfectly round, bright orange hybrid tomatoes or extremely early, disease-resistant cucurbits. Similarly, the world of hybridizing flowers for size, longevity, stand and color continues alongside stewarding the continuation of heritage seed saving.

It can be confusing since many plants have some varieties that are heirloom and some that are newer hybrids. Knowing a few specifics about particular cultivars may help in your planning of a successful heritage planting.

Sometimes the balance of old and new is sticking with heirloom seed collections but trying new varieties. With my sole vote when it comes to menu planning, eggplant is grown mostly as a conversation piece, earning little rank for space in our garden. With dozens of heirlooms stemming from Africa, Asia and Europe, this nightshade has been extensively hybridized to enhance flavor and resist disease.

In six years of trialing 13 varieties, my top pick for flavor, looks and summer grilling is Ping Tung, native to Taiwan and a prolific producer with little setback by pesky flea beetles. Unlike thicker-skinned Italian relatives, Asian eggplant varieties generally have edible skin, similar to the difference between peeling winter squash and eating the skin of summer squash and zucchini. New to our farm this season is Prosperosa, a round Italian type with deep purple skin bragging a mild, meaty flesh. I will put it to the test against traditional black beauty and heirloom Bianca rose in a classic eggplant parmigiana recipe.

For companion planting, a towering giant angelica (Angelica gigas) flower begins its residence in our heirloom garden plot, due to bloom next August with dramatic, deep purple, spherical umbrels on stunning 4- to 6-foot purple stems. Offering the punch of spring allium bulbs and the spread of summer Queen Anne’s lace, this heritage flower was first collected along Korean mountain streams and documented in 1917. This angelica cultivar prefers moist shade in an undisturbed spot for setting seed.

Side note: Like some heritage holly hocks, this heritage biennial takes two full seasons to reach the flowering stage. It is deer resistant and a bald-faced hornet favorite for those of you focused on expanding your pollinator gardens.

Herbs are a must-have in our heritage planting, especially ones with sweet stories to tell while showing off our gardens. Native Americans along Missouri river valleys gathered anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) to use as a sweetener in cooking. The Cheyenne tribe used it as an aromatic herb for lifting a dispirited heart. Similar in stance to speedwell, deep purple spikes appear in July and continuously bloom a bit past the first hard frost.

When our newly installed horsemint finally took off, the buzz of pollinators literally stopped me in my tracks. As I looked closely at this wild spotted bergamot plant, Monarda punctate, I wondered if I could eat it, though I’d been forewarned of its mostly medicinal use of bitter leaves emitting a stimulating aroma similar to thyme. As I kneeled down in wonder, I imagined an entire fairy kingdom thriving in the whimsical stacks of jester hat-like blooms.

Grown by us for its unique cut flower stems in early summer arrangements, this bee balm type is drought tolerant with bracts of pale pink, white and spotted yellow crowns hovering above a 30-inch spread of equally edible foliage. Its early appearance and continual blooms shortcut it to the top of our adjacent garden plantings of cucurbit blossoms that rely on insect pollination to set fruit.

With a few exceptions for exploring hybrids season to season, our 400-plant tomato plan is mostly heirlooms chosen for taste and ease of processing. Go-to heirloom tomatoes in our garden include Gilbertie, a 7-inch, three-pound paste variety similar to but sweeter than San Marzano. Only grow it if you love, love, love a sweet tomato. The lemony zip of Green Zebra salad tomatoes have yet to be beat during our similar cultivar trialing. For flavor and disease management, the three-pound meaty flesh of Richardson beefsteak pink tomato remains a consistent performer.

It’s not too late to plant another round of heirloom lettuce! With only 21 days to edible greens, Cimarron red romaine dates back to the early 18th century. Slow to bolt and somewhat heat tolerant, 65 days to full maturity offers a loose leafed 10-inch head of lettuce just in time for fall bounty.

See you at Grand Ridge Fest

What are your favorite fall heirloom varieties? Share your garden perspective with me during Grand Ridge's community festival this weekend. At our booth, you can pre-order seedlings and potted perennials as well as reserve your spot in our greenhouse playshops and farm field days for 2020. Fall garden seed packs and heritage fall bulbs also will be available for purchase.

Downtown Main Street hosts vendors 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, and Sunday, Aug. 18, at 190 W. Main St., Grand Ridge. Live entertainment, family activities, an art show and sale and the annual Ridge Roundup tractor rides are planned. For a schedule of events, visit

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook,

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