Now as you well know, I have been trying to focus on heirloom and OP varieties of plants this year, partially because I have to freedom to (hey, it's the first year, I can do anything I want!) and partially because I really wanted to see what all the craze was about. I have relied on certain heirlooms in the past because they had a reputation for blowing the hybrids out of the water (think "heirloom tomatoes"). But there is a certain appeal to using hybrids - they often are more robust at the onset and they often are bred to mature at the same time, usually a good thing. And hey, if I'm going to buy most of my seeds every year anyways, the heirlooms won't be acclimated to my specific location, which is part of the magic. So in the past, my brassica, cucurbit and several legume choices have often been hybrids. But not this year! So here are my reviews of some of the heirlooms I have been using in the garden. No candy coating here, it's the whole truth, at least from my perspective...
First up: Di Ferenze Fennel, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. This is the fennel you grow for the bulbs, not the seeds. Apparently the neighborhood woodchuck loves it and I can see why, the flavor in this variety is really quite good- more pronounced and fresh than I expected. However, I have had to harvest all the bulbs before they reached a nice big size because they all started to bolt! Is that just their final size or did some stress set them off? Because of their smaller size, their stringy to crunch ratio is rather high, so they would have to be cooked for quite a while or cut up really thin. Overall, not totally disappointing but not the greatest either. I'm growing another set in the fall, perhaps they will fair better and if not, I'm going to Perfection- another OP, with bolt resistance built in!
Sugar Snap Pea, I think mine are from High Mowing Seeds, but they might be Hudson Valley Seed Library: technically not an heirloom, but headed in that direction. Introduced in 1979, Sugar Snap is actually still my favorite variety of snap pea. Their height is so impressive, and they often keep going into July if you let them, but you'll need a ladder to harvest. Mine are a good 7 feet now. And their taste is perfect, not saccharine sweet, with a crisp that is great fresh or cooked. I love it!
Desiree Dwarf Blauwschoker Pea, Baker Creek. It's funny, purple veggies really do taste different. I tried these as tiny snow peas in some fresh salads and I'm letting the rest mature to see how they are cooked. Lots of pods on small plants. They say they don't need trellising, but I beg to differ. Ok on taste, not very sweet, but unless the peas out of the pod are wowers, I probably won't get this one again.
The above two are Scarlet Ohno Revival, from High Mowing. A reworking of a Japanese heirloom called, you guessed it, Scarlet Ohno. What a beautiful plant! If you've seen other Japanese salad turnips, you'll know what this tastes like. It is much milder than fall turnips with an irresistible texture that's not quite crunchy...more tender and succulent. A definite winner.
Costata Romanesco, from Hudson Valley Seed Library. I have yet to taste an actual zucchini from these plants, but I have to say, those male squash blossoms are impressive! Like, bigger than my hand! And since I get to sell those guys, that's fine with me. I think I see a fruit developing, but in the meantime, the plants have been vigorous and this is probably a variety best suited for a home garden that wants lots of tasty blossoms and the occasional tasty (I imagine) squash. Very good if you feel overwhelmed by TMZ (too much zucchini). Update!: I have had my first zucchini and it is good, really quite good. Fantastic texture, not at all bitter. And I see a couple more on the plants. This shows promise.
De Ciccio Broccoli from Hudson Valley Seed Library. They weren't kidding with the staggered harvest! I had gotten some heads two weeks ago and some are still waiting to even show a little bump in the crown. Amazing taste, with very tender stalks, but I might just need a little more uniformity in my harvest. I'll see how Calabrese does in the fall. That being said, I planted some extra early broccoli and the plants have been making side shoots for about a month now!
So why grow heirlooms in the first place? Part of it is a connection to the history of gardening and agriculture. Part of it is the independence of knowing that you can save your own seed and still get the same variety. And if you do save your own seed or you have a local seed saving community (like Hudson Valley Seed Library) then you can adapt the variety to your own region. I think I will stick to my mix of some hybrids and mostly heirlooms and OPs, especially the ones I can save seed for. Stay tuned for the next review later in the season, there's still plenty of growing left to do!