Has a customer ever come into your garden center and asked for the tastiest zucchini, or the most succulent peppers? Are they looking for something a little more unique than the typical round, red tomato? Heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties may be the perfect addition to your green goods displays. Garden Center magazine spoke with Toby Musgrave, author of the new book “Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables,” about the origins of heirloom gardening and its value for today’s gardeners.
Garden Center: What are the most common heirloom fruits and vegetables produced in the USA?
Toby Musgrave: The most popular heirloom vegetable seems to be the tomato, followed by lettuce and peppers (bell and chili). The most popular fruit is the apple.
GC: What makes heirloom fruits and vegetables unique and valuable?
TM: Heirloom varieties (or more correctly, cultivars) are important for a number of reasons. For instance, they are an important and intrinsic component of America’s gardening history and I think it is enriching to grow plants that not only taste great but also have a story to tell. Heirloom varieties are also a very significant reservoir of genetic material and diversity that may be required by plant breeders at some point in the future, and I believe many taste better than commercially grown cultivars.
Heirloom Fruits & Vegetables
By Toby Musgrave
Photography by Clay Perry
Thames & Hudson
For more information, or to purchase this book, visit www.ThamesAndHudsonUSA.com
GC: Are gardeners choosing these varieties over hybrids?
TM: Heirloom varieties are currently not as widely grown as modern cultivars but there is a widening and burgeoning interest in growing heirloom varieties - a Google search for the phrase gives 2,740,000 hits. Moreover, heirloom varieties are becoming increasingly popular at farmers markets, demonstrating that their appeal is extending beyond the gardener to those who also wish to cook with them but may not have the opportunity to cultivate them.
GC: How has heirloom gardening changed over the last 10 years (types of fruits/vegetables, popularity, methods)?
TM: More and more, gardeners are growing them as the message about heirloom varieties gets spread - and this is also a big aim of the book - to proselytize and encourage gardeners to give heritage varieties a try. And in many ways the popularity of growing heirloom varieties has gone hand-in-hand with the ever-increasing popularity of growing organically.
This joint movement is a result of the concern by gardeners and the wider public about the provenance of the fruits and vegetables they eat. Many want produce harvested from plants which have not been exposed to genetic modification, contain no pesticide residues, and are fresh and have been grown at home or locally.
GC: What do you think about organic gardening in general?
TM: I am a total advocate of organic gardening and practice it as far as I can in my own garden (for instance I occasionally “lapse” and use inorganic fertilizer, but I never use pesticides). One of the pleasures of growing heirloom varieties is that one gets over the obsession we have for “cosmetically enhanced” produce. Many heirloom varieties may not look as perfect as something we buy from the supermarket, but they sure taste better, and grown organically, I know I am eating healthily while simultaneously doing my small bit for the beneficial organisms that share my garden.
Unique and historic cultivars
But why all this talk of heritage varieties? Are not nurseries and seed catalogues filled with enough new and enticing fruits and vegetables for us to grow, without dwelling on the past? There are two main reasons why enthusiastic and responsible gardeners are growing heritage varieties. First, to produce fruits and vegetables that possess favourable characteristics absent in many new cultivars or those purchased from commercial growers via the supermarket. Secondly, to make a positive contribution to ensure the long-term survival of what remains of our fruit and vegetable gardening heritage.
— Toby Musgrave, “Heirloom Fruits & Vegetables”
GC: Is heirloom gardening a recent trend?
TM: As a popular movement it is relatively recent but a handful of far-sighted enthusiasts have been conserving and growing heritage varieties since it became clear that we were losing many of our older cultivars. Just to put the losses in context, the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation estimates that 96 percent of the commercial vegetable cultivars available in the USA in 1903 are now extinct.
GC: Why should garden center owners be interested in carrying heirloom vegetable seeds and seedlings in their inventory?
TM: I think that gardeners should have the information and be offered a choice [between hybrids and heirloom varieties]. Were I a garden center owner, I should like to feel that by promoting and selling heirloom varieties, I was making a proactive commitment to preserving and protecting my nation’s garden history and heritage. Moreover, so many heritage varieties have such great tales to tell that I believe “the story behind the plant” could be an effective marketing tool, a vehicle with which to engage and inform my customers.
Photography by Clay Perry