Gardening With Heirloom Seeds

By Lynn Coulter | August 3, 2016
Image by Lynn Coulter
by Lynn Coulter
August 3, 2016

Lynn Coulter is the author of Gardening with Heirloom Seeds: Tried-and-True Flowers, Fruits & Vegetables for a New Generation (UNC Press). She writes for HGTV Gardens, The Travel Channel blog, and other publications and websites. Visit her at http://www.LynnCoulter.com.


If you’ve heard the story about Jack and the beanstalk, you already know seeds are magical. I think heirloom seeds are really special, because they’re time travelers. Heirlooms, as you might guess, are seeds that have been handed down from one generation of gardeners to the next; some even date to antiquity. When we plant them, we’re growing basically the same kind of tomatoes or sunflowers or melons our ancestors grew. Magic!

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If you’ve never tried heirlooms, you’re in for a treat. Many have better resistance to pests and diseases than modern hybrids (think about today’s roses, which typically need lots of spraying and babying. Many antique roses practically survive by themselves, needing little more than an occasional buzz with the hedge trimmers).

Heirloom fruits and veggies beat the taste of today’s produce almost every time. Just compare the meaty, rich taste of a tomato like ‘Brandywine’ to the flavor of one of those round, red globes sold in the grocery store, and you’ll see what I mean. For a glimpse of Heaven, eat an heirloom tomato when it’s fresh-picked from the vine and still warm from the sun.

In the flower world, a lot of heirlooms have wonderful perfumes that have been lost over the years, as breeders worked to develop bloom size, color, and other qualities. Think about today’s roses again. They’re beautiful, but how many are really fragrant?

If you’ve never grown heirlooms, think about giving them a little space in your garden this year. Here are a few of my favorites you may want to try:

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Nasturtium ‘Cherry Rose’

I’m fascinated by stories about heirloom nasturtiums that -believe it or not””glowed in the dark! That’s according to a book called the Florist’s Manual, published by Herman Bourne in 1833. There’s also a dictionary of gardening from 1887 that refers to nasturtiums’ ability to emit electrical sparks under certain atmospheric conditions. Did these little plants really twinkle, once upon a time? It sounds like a fairy tale now””maybe another Jack the Beanstalk tale””but it’s fun to think about. For best results, grow your nasturtiums in cool weather. I love ‘Cherry Rose,’ which can be traced back to a Burpee seed list from the 1940s.

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Tomato ‘Brandywine’

Sometimes you have to grow heirlooms from seeds, because starts are hard to find or unavailable, but ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes, which date to the 1880s, are still popular and easy to find. The plants get their name from Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Creek, where they were once grown by Amish gardeners and farmers. This old-timey tomato is a big, beefsteak type, and it’s delicious. By the way: I started my tomato seedlings in an empty tomato can, but soon discovered that the label took a beating from the sun and rain. If you try this, you might want to coat the can with a clear sealant before you start. Of course, your seedlings will soon need to be transplanted anyway, so you just can consider the can their temporary home and recycle it when they move out.

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‘Rose of Heaven’ Petunias

Many heirloom flowers are more willowy or “wildflowery” than newer flowers, and antique petunias, with their long, vining stems and small blooms, are no exception. Don’t let that deter you. Some heirloom petunias have sweet scents, and they look delicate and downright charming when planted in hanging baskets and window boxes. For a more compact heirloom petunia, try ‘Rose of Heaven,’ which was popular in the 1930s.

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Heirloom Zinnias

I confess, I don’t remember the name of this zinnia. That’s why it’s a good idea to label your images as soon as you make them! But there are so many gorgeous, old-fashioned zinnias to choose from, you won’t have a problem finding one to grow. I love ‘Benary’s Giant,’ first sold in the 1840s by a German seed company of the same name. The flowers come in many jewel-like colors, including red, orange, purple, yellow and clear pink. If you prefer daintier plants, try ‘Lilliput,’ which has pom pom-shaped blooms on stems that grow to just 18 inches tall. This old-timey zinnia dates to around 1910.

When the growing season is finished, don’t forget to save your heirloom seeds for planting again next year. Unlike most hybrids, they’ll come back true to type, so you’ll save money and carry on the tradition””and fun””of growing the same kinds of plants our grandparents grew.

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