Heirloom Fruit and Vegetables: The Backyard Gardener’s Mission

By Colleen Dieter

Whether you are an avid gardener or a newbie, you may have heard fellow gardeners chatting about heirloom varieties of vegetables with zealous passion. Heirloom plants have turned reserved, calm gardener folks into crazed, radical revolutionaries. Ok, maybe that is hyperbole, but I have overheard these conversations several times, and wondered what motivated ordinary backyard gardeners to become emotional when talking about certain heirloom varieties of tomatoes, apples and radishes. So, I decided to research for this article by talking to friends and surfing the web for info about these seemingly intoxicating plants.

There is a lot of controversy out there about what the term “heirloom” means when it comes to vegetables and fruit. Some sources say that heirloom plants must be varieties that were introduced to gardeners before WWII, when larger seed companies started breeding plants so the plants have characteristics that made them more suitable for large-scale commercial food production. For example, after WWII seed companies wanted to breed new types of tomatoes that are harder and less squishy as heirloom tomatoes, making them easier to ship to grocery stores. Other gardeners say heirloom varieties have to be 100 years old or even older.

Other sources say that heirloom varieties of edible plants must be “open pollinated.” The National Gardening Association Dictionary of Horticulture defines open pollinated as “Pollinated by wind or insects, not by human intervention.” Open pollination is important with heirloom plants because the offspring of plants that are open pollinated are similar to their parent plants. The best way to explain the importance of “open pollination” is through an example: Let’s say you plant an open pollinated tomato plant. You get a good crop of tomatoes from it and they taste really yummy. Then you decide that instead of buying those same tomato seeds next season you would rather save some of the seeds from your current crop. The new tomatoes planted from the seeds you saved will have the same traits as the first tomatoes you planted. Plants that are not open pollinated are called hybrids. Hybrids are plants that humans purposely created using breeding techniques. If you saved the seeds from a hybrid plant and planted them the next year, then the new plants will probably be different from their parents. Sometimes the seeds from hybrids are sterile and will not come up at all. For more info, visit this great site that I found that is dedicated entirely to information about heirloom vegetables: http://www.halcyon.com/tmend/define.htm .

What’s my opinion on the controversial definition of heirloom plants? I like to think of heirloom plants in the same way that we talk about family heirlooms: something is rare and irreplaceable that is passed on from one generation to the next. Often, it’s a thing that you can’t buy at a store and it is valued either for some unusual or sentimental characteristic. Heirloom varieties of plants tend to be more than 50 years old and open pollinated, but those rules are very flexible and have many exceptions.

Most backyard gardeners have a stake in growing heirloom edibles for personal reasons. Many gardeners I talked to use the tomato example. If you buy a tomato from a chain grocery store, you typically get something that is kind of pinkish, small, shiny, hard, mealy and mild-tasting. The plants tend to be resistant to diseases and can adapt to bad weather. That type of tomato was bred with the interest of large-scale farmers, chain restaurants, and grocery stores in mind. That tomato looks like what most consumers think of when they visualize a tomato, most people find the taste acceptable and it ships well. The truth is, the interests of backyard gardeners and small farmers are different from the interests of bigger farmers and grocery stores. Backyard gardeners want a colorful, squishy, juicy tomato with lots of sweetness and acidic flavors—something that you can’t regularly buy at the store. Heirloom varieties fit that bill. Heirloom tomatoes come in dozens of shapes, sizes, colors and flavors that are interesting and fun.

But many small farmers and backyard gardeners also have an ecological reason for growing heirloom varieties. When large scale farmers began growing just a few newer hybrid varieties of edibles in the mid-20th century, some of the old types of plants fell by the wayside. Untold numbers of varieties went extinct, and the survival of heirloom varieties available to us now is due to passionate backyard gardeners, small farmers, and small seed companies who saved seeds and quietly kept these old plants in production.

You may ask yourself, “So what if some varieties of edible plants go extinct? The ones we still have are fine.” The truth is that the modern hybrid varieties of edible plants that we have are not entirely fine. One of my horticulture professors at Ohio State told my class about problems that Chiquita was having on their banana plantations in the late 1990s. Modern banana hybrids bred for large-scale production and for long-distance shipping from the tropics are yellow, relatively large, seedless, and harder than other types of bananas. Heirloom banana varieties vary in color. Some are red or maroon. They vary in size and tend to be softer. Left to their own devices, these bananas will produce plants with seeds. When large-scale banana producers finally bred the ‘perfect banana’ for their commercial purposes around the mid-20th century, they stopped breeding new types of plants and began growing only one kind of banana. In order to be sure that they would not accidentally grow bananas with different traits, they started using asexual methods for cloning their banana plants. The result is that every banana plant on a large-scale banana plantation is going to be genetically identical to every other banana plant on that plantation.

This isn’t science fiction; banana plants naturally clone themselves by producing offshoot plants from the base of their trunks, just like tulips, agaves, spider plants, and onions. Cloning is very common in the plant world. Plant producers also use a simple process called tissue culture to clone plants. A tiny piece of plant tissue is placed in a Petri dish in either a lab or greenhouse with some nutritious gel in it, and this tiny piece of plant tissue is fed hormones. From this tiny plant tissue grows a whole new plant. I did some tissue culturing in one of my lower-level college crop science classes, and the tissue culture method is used to reproduce most new seedless grape plants. But in the late 1990s, Chiquita plantations began losing large numbers of banana plants to disease, and because every banana plant was genetically identical there were no plants that had resistance to this disease. The companies began seeking out heirloom varieties of bananas to begin breeding new varieties of bananas to resist this particular disease. Luckily for Chiquita, and all of us who love to eat bananas, there were still some heirloom bananas available for breeding, and those heirloom varieties happened to be resistant to this particular disease. What if all of those heirloom varieties had gone extinct?

For another example and perspective on biodiversity, check out this article by Michael Pollan about apples: http://www.michaelpollan.com/article.php?id=54

Finally, some backyard gardeners and small farmers around the world plant heirloom varieties of plants for political reasons. In the U.S., if a seed company breeds a new variety of plant, they often put a patent on that new plant so they are the only ones who can produce that plant. People who save seeds to reproduce that plant and don’t pay royalties to the seed company who originally produced it can incur fines. The laws surrounding this type of ownership are enforced by federal and state departments of agriculture. Some gardeners are uncomfortable with the idea that someone can own genetic material, arguing that genes are a part of the natural world. Many heirloom gardeners are uncomfortable with the idea that a large seed company or corporation could possibly have exclusive rights to produce certain types of food, especially staples like corn and wheat. This issue becomes even more complicated because of the introduction of genetically modified crops. You can hear about a court battle that went on in Canada over ownership of genetically engineered canola here: https://beta.prx.org/stories/184510

Like the copyright laws surrounding works of art, heirloom varieties are so old that no one can claim to own them. They are part of the ‘public domain,’ leaving gardeners and farmers free to plant them, save their seeds, and reproduce them without penalties.

I have planted lots of heirloom varieties in my garden just for fun, not knowing the other reasons for growing them. My experience with heirlooms has been mixed. I have grown very attached to certain varieties. My friends know of my fondness for ‘French Breakfast’ radishes. I also adore ‘Romano’ pole beans and ‘Armenian’ cucumbers. Other heirlooms I have tried, especially tomatoes, have not done well and can be very quirky. So, if you are interested in heirlooms, then keep an open mind and get ready for some challenges. It helps to keep a garden journal so you can remember which varieties worked for you, and which ones to avoid. I have found my gardening successes are even more rewarding with heirlooms because I can pass the seeds on to friends and I am helping to preserve genetic diversity. Plus, the unusual plants make for great conversation with gardener pals.

Ask your local librarian if there is a seed library in your community. Often the best way to get heirloom seeds is from other gardeners. Seed libraries lend seeds to gardeners and at the end of the growing season gardeners can bring their saved seeds back to contribute to the library. I am one of the founding members of the seed library on the 6th floor of the Austin Public Library Central Branch in downtown Austin, Texas.

Seed swaps are another great way to get ahold of hard to find heirloom varieties that are suitable for your location. Recently I snagged some rare ‘Chushaw’ squash seeds at a swap.

There are lots of good places to buy heirloom seeds and plants. Check out these favorites of mine:

Seed Savers Exchange- Garden Maven Peg got some cool broom corn seeds here.


Tons of varieties and great information at Botanical Interests, a family-owned business.


Renee’s garden is going to have most of what you want.


Cool fruit and nut trees are available here at Trees Of Antiquity.


There are many very cool local (and loco) websites for region-specific heirloom seeds. This one is for Hudson Valley New York, the Hudson Valley Seed Library


Johnny’s Seeds has an entire heirloom section in their online catalog:


Austin Seed Library

I'm proud to be a founder of the Austin Seed Library.  A few years ago I grew Armenian Cucumbers in my veggie garden. They were amazing. Day after day I harvested armloads of these delicious, refreshing treats in the hottest part of summer. I made pickles, I made cocktails, I made salad after salad... The smooth, ribbed skin and crisp texture make this variety a delight. The cucumber beetles ate away at them day and night but the plants couldn't care less. It was my gardening dream come true.

The next year, I wanted to plant them again. But I couldn't find the seeds anywhere! I searched all of my normal local nurseries, seed catalogs and asked friends. But I finally had to break down and do a random google search for them. The only place I could find them was Burpee. Now, I don't have anything against Burpee, but what if they go out of business? Where will I get my seeds? What if they decide to not carry Armenian Cucumbers anymore? This is when I decided to take up seed saving.

On a larger level I started to wonder if it is wise for our food to be in the hands of profit-motivated companies. I started reading and researching more, and found that many of our vegetable varieties have gone extinct or face extinction because commercial farmers do not grow them. It's up to home gardeners and small scale farmers to keep these rare treats alive.

I also learned that you can hone the genetics of your little veggie plants by saving the seeds year after year. You can create what gardeners refer to as a "Landrace", which is perfectly adapted to your soil and climate in your specific garden. This will be valuable to us as we are starting to face the consequences of climate change, especially in the already extreme climate of ATX.

The seed library is currently a small group of dedicated volunteers who love, love, love seeds. We are having a seed swap and kickoff meeting on April 7 from 2:30-4:30 at Sustainable Food Center.  I hope you can join us.


Rare Tree Alert!

I was very excited to find this Texas Madrone tree on the side of the road near Lake Travis Middle School. It's not in great shape but still cool to see. I may try to collect some seeds from it this fall. It is unusual to see them east of the Edwards Plateau and they are notoriously hard to grow and not widely available at nurseries. I love them for their strange, smooth, white and red bark, and their red, velvety fruits. 


Did Harvey Damage Your Trees?

High winds and saturated soil can cause big problems for trees. Certain species of trees are more susceptible than others. Need help assessing the damage and risk?  Ask me! I'm an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist. Call or text me at (512) 944-3504. I hope you are all safe and sound! Thanks, Colleen

This Anacacho Orchid tree has a snapped branch after the storm. Do you know how to properly remove a damaged limb? Improper pruning can cause more harm than good. Ask me for advice.  

This Anacacho Orchid tree has a snapped branch after the storm. Do you know how to properly remove a damaged limb? Improper pruning can cause more harm than good. Ask me for advice.  

Is Dead Grass Stressing You Out?

Woodland Landscape Workshop at Natural Gardener Saturday August 12 at 10:00  

Are you struggling to make your shady yard look good? Colleen Dieter with Red Wheelbarrow Landscape Consulting will share her pro tips and tricks for eliminating struggling turfgrass to make a woodland garden that is soothing and lovely. Colleen has been helping black thumb homeowners with their Austin yards for 14 years. Check out her blog for more info at ATXGardens.com.

Do you need help with your landscape? Do you know someone who can benefit from our services? Call Colleen at 512-944-3504to set up a consultation.


North American Butterfly Association Certification

I recently got certification for my home butterfly garden! I got a nice sign for the garden and the pride in knowing I did a good job providing the butterflies with resources they need. Here are some photos from my butterfly garden lately. Feel out of touch with nature? A small patch of butterfly plants in your yard can cure you. Call me for a consultation to get advice about how to create a butterfly haven: 512-944-3504. Learn more about getting certified at http://www.naba.org.

Lantana 'Dallas Red'. I had three planted but only one grew back after the short severe cold snap we had this winter. Lantana provides nectar as a food source for butterflies, and the shape of the flower makes it easy for them to sit while they drink.

Lantana 'Dallas Red'. I had three planted but only one grew back after the short severe cold snap we had this winter. Lantana provides nectar as a food source for butterflies, and the shape of the flower makes it easy for them to sit while they drink.


Pink Flamingo Muhly Grass gives butterflies a place to sit and feel protected during bad weather. The cactus fruit provides another food source for butterflies if allowed to fall and rot on the ground. The grey shrub in the background is Mountain Butterfly Bush, it's orange flowers provide another source of nectar. 

Texas Sage 'Lynn's Legacy' has purple flowers and greenish silver leaves. It provides food for caterpillars before they grow into butterflies. It thrives in my yard because I have well-drained soil and I do not water it. 

Texas Sage 'Lynn's Legacy' has purple flowers and greenish silver leaves. It provides food for caterpillars before they grow into butterflies. It thrives in my yard because I have well-drained soil and I do not water it. 

Got Concerns about Trees?

Some customers of mine had a tree growing near the street. They often park their cars in the shade under this tree. During our first walkthrough consultation I noticed the tree was leaning at pretty severe angle over the street, and I identified it as a species that is weak-wooded and prone to decay. I informed the homeowners that parking under that tree on a windy day would be unwise, and they were concerned about the safety of folks walking under the tree. 

Last year I achieved one of my long-term goals of becoming an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist. I'm proud to say that my training helped those customers, who had the tree removed shortly after my consultation. Upon removal we could see extensive rot in the center of the trunk. There's no shortage of windy days in Central Texas, so it's smart to have your trees at the front of your mind when thinking about your landscape. 

Check out the two photos below. I took them last year when I was visiting Chadwick Arboretum, where I had my first gardening job as a student back in 2000, where I got my horticulture chops. I love the tag that shows how much money a tree is worth and the services that tree provides, especially reduced atmospheric carbon. Call me for tree advice! 512-944-3504. And take a look at the tree benefits calculator here.


How home vegetable gardeners are saving humanity

Hey home veggie gardeners! Did you ever wonder about GMO seeds, heirloom varieties or hybrids? They are confusing terms and can be intimidating. If you are a home veggie gardener, you might grow a fantastic crop of cucumbers or beans, only to be disappointed because you can't find the same variety for the next growing season. If you saved your own seeds, you would have them for the next season and you would be helping maintain varieties of vegetables that may go extinct otherwise. Seed saving is easy, fun and subversive. It's an empowering act that makes a real difference to humanity. Of all of the things I can teach you, this is the most important.

Feel confused about heirlooms vs hybrids? Ever wonder "what's the deal with GMOs?" Did you ever grow an amazing crop of tomatoes only and then feel disappointed because the following season you can't find that variety again? Are you wanting to make a significant impact on humanity? I'm teaching a class about seed saving at SFC in Austin on May 13 from 2-4 PM. All of these topics will be covered! Learn how small scale gardeners can make a difference.

Sign up for my class here.


Fun facts about Texas Bluebonnets

Today we shot the Garden Journeys segment for Spectrum news in the Mueller Orchard. It looks incredible now- my photos do not live up to the real thing. There are six species of bluebonnets that grow in Texas. And it diplomatic move to Texas Legislature designated all six as a Texas state flower and any future cultivars or varieties that are discovered will also be designated as the Texas state flower. Of course Texas would have more than one state flower...better than all those tiny states with only one. You may be lucky enough to spot bluebonnets in shades of pink white or maroon or light blue. In Central Texas we know Lupinus texensis best as a deep, dark blue flower that colonizes large swaths along roadsides and in disturbed waste places. They can grow in these tough places because they are legumes- members of the Fabeacea family along with peas, beans, Redbuds and Texas Mountain Laurels. Legumes have a symbiotic relationship with a special soil microbe. All plants need nitrogen to make leaves and stems. But soils in disturbed areas- like those along roadsides- usually don't have enough nitrogen to support most plants. The little soil microbe that lives with the legumes, including bluebonnets, can grab nitrogen out of the atmosphere and "fix" it so the bluebonnet can use it. In return the bluebonnet gives the microbe some sugar that it makes in it's leaves. The microbes make a tiny home on the roots of the legumes and it looks like a little nodule. The plants attract the microbes by exuding stuff that the microbes like out of their roots. Pretty cool!!! The Mueller Orchard is full of bluebonnets right now and is easy to park near and walk into if it is time for your annual bluebonnet photos. The orchard is at the corner of Manor and Berkman roads. 


Spring Woodland Wildflowers

Many of my customers ask me to help them when their grass dies under large trees. Shaded, woodland yards have become my specialty. In the early spring we have many great choices for blooms in shaded yards. These flowers take advantage of the extra light they get when the trees loose their leaves and they thrive during the cool season then go dormant in the summer heat. White yarrow and purple spiderwort, shown in the photos here, are two of these spring ephemeral flowers that thrive in shade in Austin. Oxalis, Columbine and Baby Blue Eyes are also great choices. I typically pair them with a plant that thrives in summer but dies back in winter like Purple Heart or other types of Tradescantia. That way the plants cover each other when one or the other is going through their ugly dormant time.

There's a reason why it's called spring.

I was talking with my friend the other day and we both couldn't remember the spring season that was more springy than this one. Some well-timed rain and unseasonably warm temperatures have catapulted the plants back into action! But at the same time and seeing a lot of plant fatalities after the extreme cold snap that we had early in the winter. I offer plant shopping and delivery services if you need help replacing plants that died over the winter. At this time of year the nurseries can be really crazy and they can be difficult to navigate if you don't know where to go or what to look for. Here's a pro tip: if you're able to shop the nurseries on Thursdays, you should. Most of the nurseries get truckloads of plants in on Wednesdays so that they are well-stocked for the weekend. So on Thursday you get the absolute best plants and the most stock available with smaller crowds compared to shopping on Saturday. Pack some patience because most of the nurseries don't offer enough parking, and much of the parking lot is taken up with new plants or big cargo trucks full of plants. The nursery parking lot traffic jam is an annual headache for me. Don't go to the nursery in the spring if you're in a hurry. 

Calendula is one of my favorite cool season annuals. A bunch of mine died in the cold this winter when they usually thrive. 

Calendula is one of my favorite cool season annuals. A bunch of mine died in the cold this winter when they usually thrive. 


WEEDING SUCKS! I have been a pro gardener for over 15 years and I really always disliked weeding. The best methods for weed prevention are planting many plants so there isn't a lot of open space for the weeds to grow in, applying a thick layer of mulch to cover bare soil where weeds can thrive and watering as little as possible- heavy weed populations can be caused by overwatering. I recently taped a segment for Spectrum news about my favorite tools for weeding. I will post a link to it after it airs. BUT the best weeding tool is some good music/podcast/book on tape/chatty friend. The sheer boredom is what gets me! Anyway I am also doing a class about tools at Natural Gardener Feb 4 and I will cover weeding tools, and also digging and pruning tools as well. Bring your mystery tools that are collecting dust in the shed- I might know what they are for! I will also cover sharpening and tool care. Check out the event listing here for more info.

Fruit tree classes and Spectrum News Video

I'm really looking forward to teaching my first fruit tree class of 2017 tomorrow! This one is hosted by Sustainable Food Center. Here's a link to my recent Spectrum news segment about how to prune a pear tree. http://www.fox7austin.com/good-day/228503918-story. This 2 minute segment just scratches the surface of what there is to know about fruit tree pruning but it gets to the heart of it- opening up the canopy of the tree so it gets better airflow. We can also prune fruit trees to control their size and to limit the amount of fruit they make. I have pruned a lot of fruit trees but one of my new year's resolution is to learn more about grape vine pruning. I have a grape vine that isn't making much fruit and I have carelessly pruned it over the last 3 years. I got it from a friend who planted it in her yard and it never really grew much. We transplanted it to my yard and in the process discovered it had some pretty serious problems with girdling roots, so I root pruned it during transplanting. Anyway it is thriving in my yard and looking great but not making a lot of fruit and I think pruning has something to do with it...also my friend forgot what kind of grape it is. We both think Champanel but not sure, so that makes it hard to figure out what kind of fruit it should be producing. Anyway my next fruit tree class is Feb 11 and there is at least one more following that one this spring. So if you want more fruit tree info come to one of the classes!  Or schedule a consult with me. 

Free Trees for Austin Energy Customers!

I'm an avid volunteer with Treefolks.org, and each year they organize these huge free tree giveaways. Even if you have large shade trees in your yard already don't forget to add some understory trees like Texas Mountain Laurels that provide shelter for birds and early spring flowers for hungry bees.  Get more info about the giveaway here https://www.facebook.com/events/1705387286448009/

Come get a free tree on Saturday, January 21 from 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM at the ACC Highland Mall campus!

Free trees are available for Austin Energy customers, who can bring their ID or utility bill as proof of residence. Available species include Lacey Oak, Mexican White Oak, Montezuma Cypress, Pear, Pecan, Persimmon, Pomegranate, Satsuma, and Texas Mountain Laurel. The trees will be in 5-gallon containers and are approximately 3 – 5 feet tall, depending on the species.

The giveaway is part of the NeighborWoods program, which is a partnership between TreeFolks and the City of Austin to lower summer temperatures and reduce energy consumption by investing in tree canopy cover for Austin area neighborhoods. 

WHO:  Austin Energy Customers

WHAT:  Free Trees for Austin Energy Customers

WHEN:  Next Saturday, January 21 from 9:00 AM - 12:00 PM

WHERE:  ACC Highland Mall, Parking Lot D (6101 Airport Blvd, Austin, TX, 78752)

Pear Tree Pruning on Fox 7 Good Day Austin

I'm taping today to promote my fruit tree class for Sustainable Food Center. The segment will air on Weds Jan 11 between 9:30 and 9:50 am on the local Austin Fox morning show, Good Day Austin. I'm pretty excited about it! We are taping out in the Mueller Orchard- if you're in Austin you should visit the Mueller Orchard! It is located between Tom Miller and Manor Rds east of Berkman. I've been consulting on and caring for the orchard for a year now and it's been fun seeing the little trees mature.  

Food Preservation Methods

Check out these cool infographics about food preservation. you can use these techniques to get more deliciousness from your garden or to take advantage of a good deal at the farmer's market. Drying is my favorite method because I am an avid herb gardener. Sometimes I tie a rubber band around the stems of the herbs and hang them up to dry in my kitchen. Rubber bands work better than string because the stems will shrink as they dry and fall out of the string. The rubber band can contract to keep holding them. Here in Austin the weather tends to be dry enough that I don't need to worry about them getting moldy. But I do have to worry about cat hair getting on them! So I have a nice little food dehydrator that my brother gave me as a gift. It keeps the herbs clean as they are drying, but I have to be careful not to leave them in there too long or the essential oils, i.e. the great flavors, get cooked right out of them. During the summer I will park my little dehydrator in the sun outside and the herbs dry well in there without having to plug in the machine. Someday I would like to build an actual solar dehydrator but that is way down at the bottom on my to do list. If you like these infographics you can read the whole article here at Fix.com.

Happy New Year

In 2017 I am looking forward to enjoying the literal fruits of my labors in my home garden. I harvested at least 50 key limes from my little Key Lime tree this fall and winter. They are fragrant little treasures that make the perfect gin and tonic. I handed them out to my friends who came to visit during the holiday season. I even baked a Key Lime pie with a gingersnap crust!!! I recently planted an 'Orange Frost' Satsuma and with a little TLC I have big expectations for loads of fruit in years to come. This is what brings true joy to my daily life, a feeling of simple pleasure and abundance. Feel inspired? I can help you find some joy in 2017 by adding some fruits, veggies or herbs to your landscape.  Please get in touch! 512-217-6955.