Growing Heirloom Vegetables

Top 10 Heirloom Vegetable Varieties for Home Gardeners

There's only one reason needed to try growing heirloom vegetables - Taste. There are thousands of heirloom vegetable varieties available for the home vegetable garden. Heirlooms vegetables became heirlooms because people prized them enough to save seeds. You won't find many of these varieties in your grocery store because they weren't developed for mass production or storage. That's all the more reason to make room for growing some heirloom vegetables in your own vegetable garden.

  • 01 of 10

    Bean: Blue Lake, Kentucky Wonder and Romano

    Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans
    Photo: © Marie iannotti

    If a vegetable can be popular for hundreds of years and still be grown today when there are hundreds of new introductions each year, it deserves some respect. That's certainly true of this trio of beans.

    'Kentucky Wonder' is one of the first varieties of beans to become commercially available and it is still one of the most popular varieties with gardeners today. It has a clean, strong flavor.

    'Blue Lake' is a particular favorite of mine because it is so prolific and I have limited space and because it stays tender, even when I forget to pick it young.

    And there's no substitute for the flat-podded 'Romano' Italian heirloom. These have a hearty, meaty flavor that can hold up to strong sauces.

  • 02 of 10

    Cucumber: Lemon Cucumber

    Lemon Cucumber
    Photo: © Marie iannotti

    Usually yellow cucumbers are a bad thing, but 'Lemon' cucumbers are a real gem. Pick them small, about lemon size, and you can eat them like a fruit. Don't wait for them to turn bright yellow. That means they are past their prime. As they get older, they get full of seeds and develop a lot of black, scratchy spines.

    The pale yellow skin is thin and the inside flesh is crisp and juicy. They make an excellent edible bowl for salads and an interesting choice for pickles.

  • 03 of 10

    Eggplant: Violetta di Firenze

    Eggplant 'Violetta di Firenze"
    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Eggplants are stars among heirloom vegetables, because of the variety of size, shape, color and flavor you won't find elsewhere. 'Violetta di Firenze' is a heat lover, but it's worth the extra work. The stunning lavender fruits are mottled with creamy white.

    Picked early, the skin is thin enough to leave unpeeled. The flavor is at its best when given plenty of sun and heat. I grow mine in black, plastic pots, so the roots stay extra warm. 'Violetta di Firenze' can be the silver lining of the dog days of August.

  • 04 of 10

    Garlic: Spanish Roja and Red Toch

    Growing Heirloom Garlic
    Photo: © David Silverman / Getty Images.

    If you live where the winters are cold, it's hard to beat the flavor of 'Spanish Roja'. It's a hardneck variety with 6-10 cloves per bulb. 'Spanish Roja' is prized for its spicy flavor and moderate heat, and it also stores well for up to 6 months.

    'Red Toch' is easily one of the best softneck garlics. The large, pink-streaked cloves can be eaten raw, with none of the unpleasant aftertaste usually associated with garlic. Since garlic isn't grown from seed, you can safely save garlic bulbs to replant each year, without concern for cross pollination.

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  • 05 of 10

    Melon: Moon and Stars Watermelon

    Moon & Stars Watermelon
    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    'Moon & Stars' watermelon has been called the poster vegetable of heirloom gardening. It is quite an attention getter, with its dark green rind speckled with tiny yellow stars and usually at least one larger moon. Even the leaves are dotted with yellow.

    Inside all of this beauty is wonderful sweet, rich red flesh. These are large melons, about 20-30 pounds apiece, with a sprawling vine to sustain them. And yes, they have seeds. How else could they become heirlooms?

  • 06 of 10

    Pepper, Hot: Fatalli

    Fatalli Hot Pepper
    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    'Fatalli' is a habanero type chile pepper, so expect a good amount of heat. But unlike some hot peppers that simply test your tolerance for discomfort, 'Fatalli' has a wonderful smokey flavor that lingers long after the heat dissipates. That's not to say you won't need to build up a tolerance. If you like the flavor of hot peppers, but not the burn, add them whole to whatever you are cooking and remove them before serving. It will temper their pungency.

    As you can see, 'Fatalli' produces a lot of peppers on each plant. However it doesn't start setting fruit until late in the season and it needs a lot of heat and sun before then.

  • 07 of 10

    Pepper, Sweet: Jimmy Nardello

    Growing Peppers
    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    This is one of the Italian frying type peppers you never seem to find in grocery stores any longer. . The long, slender fruits of 'Jimmy Nardello' can easily grow 8-9 inches long. Jimmy is reported to have said they were ready to harvest when they curled around like a pig's tail.

    The plants are tall and bushy and may require staking because they produce a large crop. The peppers are extremely sweet when glossy red and nice and tangy when picked green.

  • 08 of 10

    Radish: Rat Tailed

    Heriloom Edible Podded Radish 'Rat's Tail'
    Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    This radish solves all your radish growing problems. Too woody? Not a problem. Root maggots? Not a problem. Bulbs won't form? Not a problem.

    'Rat Tailed' radish is an edible podded radish. It's grown for it's zesty, crunchy seed pods that resemble a rat's tail, but taste like a globe radish. The plants love heat and produce pods for 4 weeks or longer. They can be eaten fresh, pickled or even tossed into stir fries and vegetable dishes.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Squash: Ronde de Nice

    Ronde de Nice Zucchini
    Photo: © Marie iannotti

    You may think the last thing you need is more zucchini, but 'Ronde de Nice' makes itself useful. It is, as the name implies, round and it can be picked small enough for single servings. The thin skin is very delicate, which means you won't find it shipped and sold in stores. The flesh is creamy and rich and the bowl shape makes it perfect for stuffing.

  • 10 of 10

    Tomato: Lillian's Yellow & Brandywine

    Lillian's Yellow Tomato
    Photo Courtesy of the National Garden Bureau

    If it weren't for the incredible flavor of 'Brandywine' tomatoes, I'm not sure there would be that much interest in heirloom vegetables. 'Brandywine' reminded people of what tomatoes used to taste like.

    I've given them a tie here with 'Lillian's Yellow', because Miss Lillian wins so many local taste tests. If she can beat out 'Brandywine', imagine what you're missing.