Ed’s note: I’ve always enjoyed growing at least a few of my own vegetables (within the confines of pots, mostly), but I’ve recently discovered the joys of ‘heirloom’ seeds – and they really are too cool for school.  Once you’ve given heirloom seeds a try, it’s no longer just about producing food – a world of cool names, delicious flavours and vibrant colours awaits you… Sean Freeman tells us more:

A guest post by Sean Freeman.

The humble vegetable garden is back in fashion! A fresh, home-grown garden salad placed in front of your guests is a source of pride and a thing of exceptional beauty. The effort that went into that salad was months in the making, not just the half hour spent in the kitchen preparing it.  And, once that salad is on the table, talk normally turns to what each person is growing in their gardens and how they use the various ingredients.

What I would like to talk about is the source of those vegetables… the seeds.

Since gardening began the vegetable gardener would collect seed from the best of each year’s crop. They would share a few precious seeds in the mail to a friend or, when a fellow gardener dropped past, a few seeds were pressed into their hands as a parting gift. Very often these varieties developed a history or even ‘cult following’ amongst those in the know.

If you can remember your Ouma’s giant red tomatoes that burst with flavour, or sweet snap beans that you used to sneak out of her garden you have tasted an heirloom vegetable. Her canned chutneys and beetroot salad and even the tasty carrots or beans that she froze for over-winter came from heirloom or open pollinated seed stock. If she was so inclined she was even able to save seed from her crops every year.  Sadly, though, most of that seed-saving knowledge and even many seed varieties have been lost in our fast-paced, glossy, barcode-driven lifestyle.

When immigrants moved to a new country they would bring in a few precious seeds folded in a grubby envelope, or carefully sown into a hem or jacket lining to get past nosy customs officials. These seeds, once planted in the new country, were tended with loving care and often allowed these cash-strapped immigrants to get by in the first few years – with fresh tomatoes, a few pumpkins or some beans to stretch out their meagre earnings.

Over time these seeds became a part of their legacy – to their families and to fellow food gardeners in general. Around 1970 a new movement slowly gathered momentum in the US, focusing on heritage or heirloom seeds. Food gardeners started to seek out actively and trade these unique varieties and the seed-saving movement was born.

The core feature amongst heirloom seed varieties is the ability to produce fruit and seed that is ‘true-to-type’, otherwise known as open pollinated. This seed, with a bit of knowledge, can easily be saved by the home or market gardener from year to year without the need for buying in new seed every year. In fact dedicated seed savers have enough to be able to share or trade their seed with other like-minded gardeners every year.

Going back to that garden salad – we love to ‘build’ a salad out of unusual ingredients from our veggie garden.

One of our favourite salads goes something like this. A mix of raw spiralled Romanesco Broccoli, raw Sicilian Violet Cauliflower, slices of surprisingly sweet candy striped Chioggia Beetroot, sliced Purple Dragon carrots and then a few unusual black or striped tomatoes and perhaps a handful of melody lettuce. To finish off, our salads are never complete without some fresh dill leaves, baby spinach, any one of a few cucumber varieties and some fresh peas, if in season.

This spring season, look at opening up some of your flower beds to plant some veggies.  Or if you are already a vegetable gardener investigate some of the heirloom vegetables that are available and try a few out. Once you have tasted a real tomato or sampled a few beans fresh out of your garden you will understand why heirloom vegetables have the world-wide cult following that they do.

This article was written by Sean Freeman
Sean Freeman is the owner of Livingseeds.co.za South Africa’s largest supplier of locally grown Heirloom and Open Pollinated vegetable seed. Sean is dedicated to seed saving and the distribution of heirloom and open pollinated vegetable seeds for the home and market gardener. As an inveterate seed collector from a young age, Sean has collected, traded and swapped seeds for most of his life.  He now concentrates specifically on vegetable seeds, to ensure that these seeds are not lost to the South African food gardener.

Additional heirloom seed sources:

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