Heirloom Plants vs. New Plant Varieties

Some say heirloom plants are best for vegetable and flower gardening. Others swear by new varieties. Get tips for where each kind grows best.

bee balm

Newer varieties of Bee Balm, such as "Balmy Purple," "Sugar Buzz" and "Pardon My" are hardy and disease-resistant.

Photo courtesy Green Gate Farms

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“Heirlooms are the only way to go.”  

“New plants have all the benefits.”

If you’ve heard either of these statements from gardeners, take it with a grain of salt. The best method is to mix it up, in both our veggie and flower gardens—sometimes heirlooms are the way to go while other times new varieties give us an edge. Here’s a case for both, along with a few plant suggestions.    

The Case for Heirlooms

If there’s one area where most gardeners can agree to stick with heirlooms, it’s vegetables. Many heirlooms blow their hybrid counterparts away in the flavor department. This is because modern varieties, developed for benefits such as higher yields, often sacrifice flavor and nutrition.

“Heirlooms offer such incredible diversity and flavor to the garden,” says Niki Jabbour, author of Groundbreaking Food Gardens. “I can’t imagine a summer without my ‘Lemon’ cucumbers, ‘Purple Podded’ pole beans or ‘Black Cherry’ tomatoes.”

Another advantage to heirlooms is saving your own seeds. Because hybrid plants are a cross of two species, they won’t reproduce similar plants, so you can’t save seeds and use them from year to year. “When I grow the same heirloom tomato in my garden, saving the seeds from year to year, I’m developing a variety that is climatically adapted to my backyard,” Jabbour says.

Heirloom flowers also offer some natural advantages. Many times, heirlooms are also native plants, making them excellent options for supporting birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Do a little research on native plants in your area or contact a local native plant society. They will know what’s native to your area and will be able to tell you what benefits to expect.

Shopping for heirloom flower and vegetable seeds is also really fun because they offer way more variety in terms of color, taste and shape than what you typically find in garden centers. For instance, you might want to grow purple carrots, striped tomatoes and veggies with all kinds of descriptive names. Two of our favorite online sources are Rare Seeds and Seed Savers. You can spend hours reading about varieties and dreaming about which ones to try next.

The Case for New Varieties

Susan Martin is an avid Michigan gardener who has worked with professional growers for many years. She’s familiar with new varieties and why growers continually try to improve plants. While she tends to gravitate to new varieties, especially with flowers, she still grows a mixture of new and heirloom plants in her own Zone 6 garden along the shores of Lake Michigan.

“Some heirloom plants have more fragrant flowers, more flavorful fruits and other desirable traits,” Martin says. “But unfortunately along with those advantages often comes less disease resistance, a more open habit that might need to be staked, and other traits that can make them higher-maintenance. New varieties can give you the advantages of modern-day breeding, which can make plants easier to grow. Whether a variety is old or new, it has to work for your needs.”  

For instance, if you have trouble with specific diseases on a certain plant in your garden, you might welcome new varieties—traditionally bred hybrids—that allow you to easily grow crops that have challenged you for years.  

Newer varieties can also offer benefits such as longer blooming seasons, interesting color options and greater overall sturdiness.

All of this can feel a bit overwhelming, so we asked Martin to help us by putting together her top picks for heirlooms and newer varieties for a range of plant types. It’s a good starting point if you’re looking for what to plant in your own backyard. (You can follow Susan and get her great plant advice by searching “Gardener Sue’s News” on Facebook.)

No matter what, don’t be afraid to experiment. This is a trait of all great gardeners. You can’t discover great things if you don’t allow for some trial and error.

Classic Heirloom Plants

Coneflower: All Heirloom Varieties
(Echinacea purpurea, Zones 4 to 8)
You’ll notice this one is on both of my plant lists. New coneflower varieties are great, but some native plants should be staples in the garden, and this is definitely one of them. The prairie-style perennial attracts bees, birds and butterflies. It’s hardy, resilient and comes back year after year. Check with your local garden center or extension office to ask for recommendations, or consult a native plant society in your area.

Bleeding Heart: All Heirloom Varieties
(Dicentra spectabilis, Zones 3 to 9)
Some classics can’t be replaced, and this lovely plant with tiny, heart-shaped blooms is one of them. If you have shade, then you’ve likely already embraced this beauty because it will tolerate heavily shaded areas. Look for this one at your local native plant sale or Master Gardener sale—they’ll be more likely to carry heirlooms.

Peonies: ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and ‘Madame de Verneville’
(Paeonia lactiflora, Zones 4 to 9)
The large, delicate blooms of peonies just can’t be duplicated, and newer peony varieties simply don’t compare. The classic peony has enormous, gorgeous blooms, which are rich in fragrance and are often swarming with pollinating bees. Look for pink ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and white ‘Madame de Verneville’. But seriously, you can’t go wrong with any heirloom variety. They all smell fantastic, even if they do require a little bit of staking because the blooms are so big and heavy. The American Peony Society offers lots of helpful information about heirloom peonies.

Tomatoes: All Heirloom Varieties
(Solanum lycopersicum, Zones 1 to 13)
While many new tomato varieties promise higher yield, any food lover will tell you that you can’t compete with the flavor of an heirloom tomato. Plus, you’ll have a blast looking through heirloom catalogs finding the variety that sounds best to you. A few to look for include ‘Cherokee Purple’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Black Krim’. Searching is half the fun!

All Veggies: If you haven’t jumped on the heirloom vegetable bandwagon, now is the time. You can find entire books on heirloom veggies. Many heirlooms really do taste better or offer better disease resistance. It’s worth experimenting. Look for cucumbers, melons, beans, peppers and anything else you want to grow in your veggie garden.

New & Improved Plant Varieties

Shasta Daisy: ‘Daisy May’
(Leucanthemum × superbum, Zones 5 to 9)
‘Daisy May’ has larger flowers than traditional daisies. The plants are also more manageable at only a couple feet tall—no staking required. These beauties are naturally disease-resistant, and bees and butterflies love them. Perhaps the best thing about this newbie is that it has three bloom cycles in a single season, as long as you keep deadheading.

Coneflower: ‘Julia’
(Echinacea purpurea, Zones 4 to 9)
These new varieties of coneflower in the Butterfly Series introduced by Plants Nouveau are shorter and bushier than traditional varieties. They have more flowers over a longer period of time, and colors in this series include tangerine (try the ‘Julia’ cultivar), as well as magenta and bicolor options.

Bee Balm: ‘Balmy Purple’
(Monarda didyma, Zones 4 to 9)
Traditional bee balm often has problems with powdery mildew. Newer varieties are more disease-resistant and sturdier. In addition to the ‘Balmy’ series, also look for ‘Sugar Buzz’ and ‘Pardon My’.

Garden Phlox: ‘Glamour Girl’
(Phlox paniculata, Zones 4 to 8)
If you have an older cultivar of garden phlox, there’s a good chance you’ll battle powdery mildew at some point. If you don’t want to deal with it, try the new ‘Glamour Girl’ cultivar. It has disease-resistant foliage and bright coral pink flowers that also smell great.

Salvia: ‘Ablazin’ Purple’
(Salvia splendens, Zones 10 to 11)
Salvia is a wonderful plant with vibrant blooms. This new variety of annual with eggplant-colored blooms is heat-tolerant, long-blooming, and you don’t even have to deadhead it. In particular, it’s a rock star in containers—it looks great all season.