Growing Heirloom Vegetables: 8 Great-Tasting Varieties

Spigariello, Moneymaker Tomatoes and more--Try these delicious garden heirlooms beloved by chefs and foodies alike.

| March/April 2017

Ask any chef what they think about heirloom vegetables, and you’ll probably be met with glowing praise. Their superior taste, flavors and beauty all help transform ordinary dishes into something special — and that’s the reason many chefs specifically seek out heirloom fruits and vegetables for their restaurant dishes. 

We can bring those same benefits to our own kitchens by planting heirloom seeds in our gardens. But their wonderful contributions to delicious dishes aren’t the only reason to grow these plants: In the 1980s, a study by Rural Advancement Foundation International estimated that 90 percent of the seeds available at the turn of the century were no longer available. In recent years, thanks to the work of gardeners and nonprofit organizations around the country, the practice of saving and reviving heirloom seeds has seen a resurgence.

“The most flavorful veggies don’t always look like the traditional ones you’ve grown up seeing in the grocery store produce section,” says April Yuds, an organic farmer, beekeeper and food enthusiast at community farm LotFotL (an acronym for “living off the fat of the land”) in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. “You might have to eat a purple striped bean, a cucumber that is round and yellow, or a carrot that is not orange in order to find that outstanding taste.” 

So how do we know the best veggies to plant if we’re growing for taste? We asked some of our favorite chefs and gardeners across the country to weigh in and gathered eight fantastic picks. Of course, this list is just scratching the surface of the dazzling array of colors and tastes available from heirloom seeds. This season, try growing some of these varieties — and experiment with other heirlooms — and your taste buds will thank you at harvest time.

What is an Heirloom? 

Heirloom fruits, flowers, herbs and vegetables are seed varieties that have been saved and passed down for a long time — usually more than 50 years, but some are centuries old. They have been selected for flavor, resistance to pests and diseases, and other important traits. Unlike modern hybrid and genetically engineered plants, heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means they will grow true to their breed and can therefore be saved by gardeners from year to year. If you are shopping for true heirlooms, note that in practice, many open-pollinated plants end up being called heirlooms, regardless of their age.

Radish: Watermelon 

This gorgeous, aptly named radish resembles a watermelon with its green exterior and hot pink interior. In the kitchen, the versatile watermelon radish can do pretty much anything, says Michaela Hayes, chief food preservationist, chef, farmer and co-owner at Rise & Root Farm in New York. Hayes also runs the preserved food company Crock & Jar, which features the watermelon radish in its popular spicy kraut. “They are a hard radish, so they hold up great in a pickle, staying crisp and crunchy,” she says. “Their brilliant pink centers turn even more amazing as they pickle.” It’s delicious raw, too. Hayes recommends them julienned or sliced superthin to add flavor and color to salads. To grow this radish, which is best grown in fall, look for the name it’s classified under, ‘Chinese Daikon’ radish. 

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