How to start your own heirloom vegetable garden

Dec 12, 2011, 9:10 a.m.

When Gregor Mendel observed pea plants growing in his monastery's garden, he launched the field of genetics, which today influences what you can buy in your local produce department. Up until about 1945, a bewildering variety of vegetables were grown in just as many differing locales. And then after World War II ended, commercial vegetable farming in the United States changed drastically. Varieties of vegetables were selected by large-scale growers for their consistency and productivity and for their ability to stand up to the rigors of harvesting, long-distance shipping, and storage. Hybrid vegetables furthered the industry's needs, and these seeds eventually came into mainstream seed catalogs by the 1970s.

But interest in heirloom vegetable seeds has grown, too, partly in response to the monocultural approach of growing large acreage of only one crop. Some heirloom growers want to maintain biodiversity in the variety's gene pool; others find a seed's history intriguing; while still others appreciate the genetic traits that have evolved to make the plant resistant to local diseases and bugs. But many heirloom growers attest to just loving the change it affords them; these vegetables are often colored differently, shaped differently, and often taste much better than their store-bound relatives.

And one added plus? Heirloom vegetables, by definition, are open-pollinated, which means that if you save their seed, they can be grown the next year. You'll get odd--or no--results if you try that with a hybrid seed.

How to begin? Well, that's a two-part question.

Part one entails finding a sunny location with access to water. Ensure that the soil is as fertile as possible by mixing a good amount of organic material--compost you have collected in your home or aged manure--into the planting area.

Part two involves a consultation with your taste buds. What do you like to eat? Don't start by looking at seed catalogs or browsing on heirloom seed websites--you'll be seduced into planting everything, because everything will look fabulous, intriguing, winsome. Once you've determined what you'll truly enjoy, let the games begin!

The one catch to growing your own heirloom garden is that, with very few exceptions, any seed that you plan to set out in the garden as a start will need to first be started by you. Brush up on the basic seed-starting process, dive into the fun, and away you go.

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