Planning the Ultimate Heirloom Garden

Edible landscaping

Imagine what your personal garden might be like if you were the co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange. I had the opportunity to find out recently at a talk given by Diane Ott Whealy at Common Ground Organic Garden Supply and Education Center in Palo Alto, CA. After spending the bulk of her life working hard to build the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange, she now enjoys being a gardener again without the responsibilities of feeding a family and growing an organization.

She maintains a display garden at the Seed Savers headquarters, Heritage Farm, the Whealyโ€™s former home in Decorah Iowa. Her approach is informal and loaded with enthusiasm.

Here are her top tips for creating a beautiful, naturally lush garden with heirlooms:

  • Grow vegetables, flowers, and herbs together (interplanting)
  • Let annuals reseed themselves for the next season, including vegetables (at least in part of the garden)
  • Learn to appreciate each stage of plant growth (lettuce gone to seed is strikingly attractive)
  • Plant bulbs (tulips, daffodils, etc.) for spring flowers, then interplant with lettuce for a dramatic effect
  • Let a flowering vine intertwine with a less showy plant, for example scarlet runner beans with sweet potatoes
Edible landscaping with flowers and vegetables
Edible garden with nasturtiums, strawberries, tomatoes, and tricolor string beans

The effect is a lush riot of texture and color with foliage and flowers to attract pollinators, and a feast for the senses. This technique of interplanting and companion planting creates a garden ecosystem that birds and insects love- the birds help control the insect population which will be a mix of beneficial insects as well as pests. Her display garden has about 500 species that include heirloom vegetables, old fashioned flowers and herbs. Some of her favorites are: Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory, Bees Friend (a flower from Germany), Scarlet Runner Bean, Moon and Stars Watermelon, and Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard, among many more.

Ott Whealy explained that the mission of the organization is to inspire people to grow the seeds: Seed Savers Exchange can save seeds but they cannot maintain gardens everywhere, therefore home gardeners are the key to keeping the thousands of useful plant varieties alive as they propagate them and share them with each other.

As she noted:

“the definition of an amateur is one who loves and cares”

You can order seeds directly from Seed Savers Exchange without a membership, or you can join and become part of the network of gardeners who exchange seeds and support the organization and their programs.

Photos: Urban Artichoke


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4 thoughts on “Planning the Ultimate Heirloom Garden”

  1. One thing about an heirloom garden, remember to watch the pollen. If they cross, the seed will be hybrid, and no longer the same heirloom variety. Speaking of hybrids, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to throw a few of those in there too. Last year (with tomatoes anyway) I planted mostly heirlooms…Carbon, Ananas Noire, White Tomesol, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Sub-Arctic Plenty, Green Zebra…but I harvested mostly hybrids. It was not a really good year (and that I didn’t have any tomato cages to keep everything orderly didn’t help either) but hybrid vigor is very real. I’m not knocking open pollinated varieties, if I didn’t like them I wouldn’t have planted so many (everything else I planted, the rutabaga, the broccoli, the chard, the lettuce, the beans, the squash, the melon, ect were all either heirlooms or something that is mostly non-cultivated anyway), but before choosing, everyone should know that there are trade offs. Hybrids are typically (though not necessarily) stronger, more productive, better disease resistance, however their seeds are genetically unstable. Heirlooms on the other hand more commonly have interesting traits (which is nice because I figure if you’re going to grow something yourself why not do something you couldn’t otherwise buy, just be prepared to hear screeching whines about how ‘that’s not a normal tomato! Real tomatoes are red!’) and their seed is stable from generation to generation, meaning you can save it and get consistent results. Just though I’d say, if anyone is considering planting an heirloom garden, they should know both heirlooms and hybrids are double-edged swords.

    1. Yes it’s true of course that some hybrids have vigor and have desirable traits, and I’ve certainly grown some of them. My post is about the pleasure of growing heirlooms and in fact a significant advantage of growing an heirloom or open pollinated variety for several seasons or years, and selecting the best growers and producers and saving their seeds, you end up with a variety that is well adapted to your particular region or specific microclimate. Can’t do that with hybrids. I also enjoy being able to save my own seeds and not having to rely on buying them each season- a sense of accomplishment!
      As for getting natural crosses in the garden, some gardeners are not concerned with that and in fact have ended up with interesting cultivars that way. If the intention is to keep the heirloom pure, experienced gardeners (especially those growing them at Seed Saver’s Heritage Farm) know to take the proper precautions.

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