I’ve read articles over the last few years that bemoan not only use of the term “heirloom”, but also the growing of such “flawed”, imperfect varieties. Some say it has become a buzz term, used by some to command higher prices for seeds, plants, produce or the products made from them. Others see the term used to falsely elevate the humble act of gardening; to use it as a bragging right.
It seems appropriate to use my first blog for Heirloom Gardener to sing the praises of the term and note its lifetime relevance to my sixty plus years. The seed for my love of gardening was planted by my grandfather, Walter Gibbs, during hand-walks through his magnificent Pawtucket, Rhode Island back yard garden when I was barely as tall as the water spigot. I have a number of heirloom pieces of his life that I keep in my office; a pocket watch, a bus token, and countless letters that he penned to me while I was in graduate school, which made me feel a little less far from home.
They are not “heritage” letters – they are indeed heirlooms, valuable bits handed down to me, and surely to be handed down to my daughters as tangible evidence of a life well lived, and a person well loved. Growing at Duke Gardens in Durham, NC is a living manifestation of my grandfather’s garden; a lilac shrub produced from a cutting taken from his yard, planted when he was young, hand delivered to me by another beloved heirloom gardener, my dad, Wilfred, a few decades ago. I am lucky indeed.
Was it the seed that Walter planted in me when I was so young that germinated into a lifetime love for heirloom gardening? Perhaps – though I will never insult hybrid vegetable or flower or fruit varieties or those who wish to focus on them, it is the collection of unique attributes about heirlooms that make them so attractive to me.
Heirlooms can be shared, handed down, regrown from saved seed and provide the equivalent experience. They are multitudinous in number (indeed, the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook offers a chance to grow literally thousands of tomato varieties, just as an example, and my own collection is also in the thousands). They are the beginning of garden stories, which can be told and retold, used to capture the imagination of friends, neighbors, relatives…and, especially, young folks, the future life blood of gardening and seed saving and sharing. They are imperfect, variable, often funny looking, and so diverse, straining the imagination to comprehend the color, shape, size and flavor possibilities. They can be very fragile – infuriating in some cases, so elusive due to the easy ability to contact this or that disease. Yet, the successes make it so, so worth the effort and occasional disappointments.
Heirloom – what a wonderful term to use for so much of the past, present, and, hopefully, future of spectacular gardens everywhere.