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Heritage vegetables – why grow them?

Posted on 25th March 2015

There has been lots of interest recently in growing heritage or heirloom vegetables and they have benefited from some positive media coverage on popular gardening programmes as well as from food and cookery shows.

So what exactly are ‘Heirloom’ and ‘Heritage’ varieties?

In the main these are varieties of vegetable that have been dropped from the big seed catalogues either because they have been superseded by more modern varieties or have lost popularity with the bigger growers and under current legislation all seeds of vegetable crops must go through an expensive registration process and therefore it is mainly those varieties that the bigger producers are growing that go through this process.

This has led to a lack of diversity in the choice of vegetables that we can grow at home and in the main the big producers are looking for something that can be harvested mechanically, is uniform in size and ripens all at the same time. Home growers tend to prefer to crop their vegetables over several weeks with ripening or maturity spread out over a longer period but the main factor for choice is usually flavour so are turning to the heritage varieties that offer this diversity.

Some heritage varieties do date back to the 1800’s and others have more recently seed dropped from the main seed suppliers catalogues. Some are what are known as ‘Landraces’ which are basically seeds that have been saved by individuals or small communities for many years. This process of saving their own seeds involves selecting the most flavoursome plants and those that are best adapted to growing conditions so over a few generations the resulting seeds saved not only give rise to top quality plants with good flavour but are adapted to local conditions. Some of these landraces are available through local seed swap schemes and membership of organisations such as the Heritage Seed Library.

So if you want to grow something with flavour and often with decorative flowers and colourful fruits why not try climbing French beans such as ‘Mrs Lewis’s Purple Podded’ or ‘Striped Bunch’ or tomatoes called ‘Livingstone’s favourite’ or ‘Broad Ripple yellow Currant’, a beautiful decorative kale called ‘Ragged Jack’ with purple leaves that have deeply cut and wavy margins or a squash called ‘Blue Hubbard’ with warty blue skin and sweet orange flesh.

Written by: Caroline Wright, Guest Contributor