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Heirloom seeds not just for tomato lovers

KENNEWICK -- Heirloom veggies and flowers are a "growing" trend in gardening.

Last week I talked about why more gardeners are opting to grow heirloom vegetables, but there still is more information about these botanic hand-me-downs that gardeners might want to know.

We hear a lot about heirloom tomatoes, but are there heirloom versions of other types of vegetables? The answer is yes. You can find heirloom varieties of beans, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, melons, pumpkins, potatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, squash and watermelons.

While the number of these heirloom varieties is not as impressive as that of heirloom tomatoes, the list keeps growing as plant finders discover new gems from around the world.

*Can I save my own seed?

You can save you own seed, but it is easier and more successful with certain types of vegetables. Some crops, such as tomatoes, are self-pollinating (using their own pollen to fertilize their flowers) and typically don't cross-pollinate between varieties. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, peas and beans are all self-pollinating. Because insects occasionally transfer pollen from one variety to another (cross-pollinate) you can be reasonably assured that your "heirlooms" will be preserved by planting different varieties of these self-pollinators at least 10 feet apart.

It's harder, but not impossible, to maintain heirloom varieties of crops that rely on insects or wind for pollination. Different varieties of these crops need to be isolated by greater distances, such as several hundred yards, to prevent cross-pollination from occurring. With the smaller size of today's yards and gardens, this becomes more of a problem. For most of us, it is easier to just grow one most desirable variety of these crops. However, if a nearby neighbor is also growing a garden, there's a risk of contaminating cross-pollination from their plants.

Crops that rely on wind or insects for pollination include beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, corn, cucumbers, melons, onions, pumpkins, radishes, spinach, squash, turnips and watermelons.

Where can you buy seeds of heirloom veggies?

Even mainstream seed companies offer seed of number of heirloom varieties and I even have seen some heirloom seeds for sale on local garden store racks. However, there are a few companies that specialize in selling heirloom seed. One of these is Seed Savers Exchange which "is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. Since 1975, members have been passing on our garden heritage by collecting and distributing thousands of samples of rare garden seeds to other gardeners." They offer a wide variety of heirloom vegetable crops and varieties, as well as heirloom annual flowers, sunflowers and prairie seed. Located in Iowa, you can find them at seedsavers.org or 563-382-5990.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds indicate that they are "America's Top Source for Pure Heirloom Seeds."

The company was started in 1998 by Jere Gettle when he was only 17. The company now offers 1,400 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs. Located in Missouri, you can reach them at rareseeds.com or 417-924-8917. They also publish a very nice quarterly publication called the Heirloom Gardener that covers more than vegetable gardening.

The last issue featured squash , cover crops, historic grains, cheese making, growing garlic, antique apples and yummy fall recipes.

Seeds of Change was "founded in 1989 by passionate gardeners with a vision to make organically grown seeds available to gardeners and farmers, while preserving countless heirloom seed varieties in danger of being lost to the "advances" of modern industrial agriculture." Based out of California, they can be reached at seedsofchange.com or 888-762-7333.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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