KENNEWICK -- Growing heirloom vegetables has been a "growing" gardening trend during the past 10 years.
It seems to be part of the larger "green" wave, a desire for natural foods, as well as environmentally safe cleaning products, building materials and more. The number of companies offering heirloom vegetable seeds and plants increases every year, but are heirlooms really better than modern hybrids?
Before answering that question we should agree on what constitutes an "heirloom" vegetable.
The term "heirloom vegetable" means different things to different people. To some, heirlooms are simply varieties that have been grown for a number of years. Others consider heirlooms to have been handed down from generation to generation within the same family.
Still others specify a minimum time-frame of 50 to a 100 years for this generational bequeathal process. One thing that can be agreed upon is that heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that tend to breed true to type. The number of years an "heirloom" variety has been in existence and its family origins still are up for discussion.
What is the value of modern hybrids? The fresh vegetables that most of us eat, especially during the winter, are grown in commercial fields and then shipped to grocery stores or processors. At the grocery store we expect good quality produce. Plant breeders have developed varieties with fruit that ship well and are generally the same size, shape and color when harvested. They also have bred varieties that color up early so they can be picked before they are fully ripe and shipped more easily without developing bruises or blemishes.
Processors need a reliable crop that meets specific requirements of uniform shapes and sizes for their specific needs, as well as varieties the are easy to harvest and ship. For processors, plant breeders have developed disease resistant varieties that all ripen about the same time, have tougher skins and uniform fruit.
For example, Columbian, Roza, Rowpac and Saladmaster are four curly top virus resistant tomato varieties developed at the WSU Research Station in Prosser by Mark Martin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1960s. Developed for the processing industry, they aren't the best tasting garden tomato you can find, but for gardeners in western U.S. regions where curly top is a serious problem they're the only ones that will reliably produce tomatoes.
What is the value of heirloom varieties? For many, the value of heirlooms is all about flavor and taste.
One of the first heirloom veggies to make it big time was the Brandywine tomato. It became well known because it won top honors in numerous tomato tasting competitions. Modern varieties have been bred for an assortment of reasons, with flavor often not being the primary goal.
When a family passed Aunt Ruby's German Green (my favorite heirloom tomato) down from generation to generation, extraordinary flavor was no doubt their principal reason. Other reasons some gardeners prefer heirlooms is that they desire to preserve genetic diversity.
Which is better? While the flavor of heirlooms generally far surpasses that of the hybrids, most of us still like a dependable crop of fresh tomatoes, squash, or other veggies.
Heirlooms that grew well in one region will not necessarily grow well in gardens across the country. Gardeners often find heirlooms less productive and reliable than modern varieties because of disease and climatic factors.
My recommendation is to grow some of each, because you can't beat the flavor of heirlooms or the reliability of modern varieties.
* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.