Backyard Beauties: Heirloom Vegetables and the Simple Art of Seed Saving

Whether as a byproduct of fiscal necessity or a desire to have a hand in what winds up on the family's dinner plate, the act of growing fruits and vegetables at home has recently returned to its rightful status as a revered American pastime. As the homegrown revolution continues to spread, many gardeners are branching out from mass-produced, highly disease-resistant hybrid plants to open-pollinated heirlooms.

Industrialized modern agriculture has never ensnared heirloom plants, as heirlooms' diverse, and sometimes unpredictable, dimensions and appearances make them difficult to mechanically harvest and process. While they are often less productive than hybrids, heirlooms offer a wide variety of bold, old-fashioned flavors in an amazing array of unique shapes, sizes, and colors that simply can't be found in carefully standardized plants. After falling off the radar long ago in favor of uniform, monochrome produce, pearlescent indigo potatoes ("All Blue"), ivory-hued tomatoes ("White Snowball"), and purple-and-yellow dappled wax beans ("Dragon's Tongue") are now, through the efforts of devoted seed savers and small-scale farmers, returning to catalogs and backyards all over the world. I will explore a trio of heirloom vegetables, all easy to find and adaptable to a wide variety of climates, and how to save their seeds.

Tomato "Mortgage Lifter"

One of the best-known heirloom tomatoes, Mortgage Lifter's heritage is as colorful as its bright pink fruit (photo above). As the story goes, a West Virginian radiator repairman named M.C. Byles -- known locally as "Radiator Charlie" -- developed the strain in the 1930s by planting a single tomato plant in the center of a ring of ten more, using pollen from the surrounding plants to pollinate the middle one. The four varieties he crossed were the largest he could find at the time: German, Italian, English, and American beefsteaks. After seven years of careful selection for size and flavor, he ended up with a stable cross that reliably produced large, meaty beefsteak tomatoes. Fueled only by word-of-mouth advertising, customers began driving hundreds of miles to get plants of their own, and Mr. Byles managed to pay off his $6,000 mortgage in just six years by selling his smash-hit seedlings for a dollar each. His lucky streak provided an apt moniker for this legendarily delicious tomato: Mortgage Lifter.

Though its sweet, slightly spicy, low-acid fruits are prone to cosmetic cracking on the shoulders, Mortgage Lifter is a remarkably productive and easy-to-grow one- to two-pound tomato, ideal for the heirloom gardening novice.

Select an early-ripening, especially delicious fruit to save seeds from, cut it in half, and scoop the seeds and surrounding gel into a cup. Add a few tablespoons of water and cover the cup with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, ensuring that a few holes poked in the top allow for air circulation.  Place the cup in a warm, sunny spot to wait for the seeds to ferment.  The fermentation process helps prevent diseases from moving on to the next generation of plants. After a few days, remove the cover, skim off the top layer of fermented slime, rinse, and then drain the seeds in a sieve. Thoroughly dry the seeds on a coffee filter or paper towel, and store somewhere dry and cool.

Pepper "Beaver Dam"
A crunchy, medium-spicy horn-shaped bell (and one of my favorite vegetables ever), the Beaver Dam pepper originated in Hungary, and was brought to America -- via Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, natch -- in the early 1910s by Joe Hussli and his family. Maturing to light green and ripening to fire-engine red about three months after seedlings are transplanted into the garden, its crisp fruits are ideal for adding a kick to salsas, stir-fries, and sandwiches. These heat-loving, two- to three-foot tall plants are ideal for container growing.

To save your own seed for planting the following year, separate Beaver Dam 50 to 100 feet from the other pepper varieties in your garden, strip the seeds from your ripest, healthiest peppers' inner seed cones, and allow the seeds to dry on a paper towel. Store your seeds in a cool, low-humidity location; a glass jar in the refrigerator is ideal.

Garlic "Lorz"
About 150 years ago, the Lorz family brought this garlic from Italy all the way to the American Northwest's Columbia River Basin. Unlike other Italian garlics, which tend to be on the mild side, Lorz packs a pungent wallop of zesty garlic flavor; the hotter the summer, the hotter the garlic. An artichoke, or softneck, variety, as many as 18 cream-colored cloves peel from its hefty, long-storing bulbs, all shrouded in thick pink-purple wrappers. The bulbs are ready to harvest at mid-season and keeps up to eight months in a cool, dark location with good air circulation.

If you'd like to save some garlic for next growing season, just select the largest, heaviest bulbs, and store them at room temperature with high humidity so they won't dry out over the winter.  Since there is no danger of cross-pollination in garlic cultivation, you don't need to worry about separating varieties to ensure your next crop will come true to type.

The following is a list of 16 American companies that distribute heirloom seeds and plants; note that, while some do, not all providers distribute exclusively heirlooms.

Midwestern U.S.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Mansfield, MO):
Sand Hill Preservation Center (Calamus, IA):
Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA):

Western U.S.
Botanical Interests (Broomfield, CO):
Ed Hume Seeds (Puyallup, WA):
Sustainable Seed Co. (Petaluma, CA):
Victory Seed Company (Molalla, OR):

Southern U.S.
Appalachian Seeds Farm & Nursery (Burnsville, NC):
Pass Along Southern Seed (Athens, GA):
Seeds of Change (Santa Fe, NM):
Seeds Trust (Cornville, AZ):

Eastern U.S.
Amishland Heirloom Seeds (Reamstown, PA):
Fedco Seeds (Waterville, ME):
Hudson Valley Seed Library (Accord, NY):
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Mineral, VA):

Stephanie McNutt
is a lifelong Milwaukeean, and an avid writer, gardener, and volunteer all her life, and an enthusiastic vegan for five years. She is slowly but surely turning her backyard into a 1/10th of an acre jungle of fruit and vegetables. She's been writing for Milwaukee's A.V. Club  and Shepherd Express.