Hartley Magazine

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Heirlooms Survive the Taste of Time

Home gardeners and farmers look to the past and see their future at the National Heirloom Exposition.

Heirloom vegetables —those open-pollinated varieties older than 50 years—have long been treasured by gardeners and farmers alike for their wide-ranging flavors, extended harvest times, and often odd-lot looks. This September, the niche horticultural pursuits of organic practices, seed saving, and growing heirloom plants took another step toward mainstream food production with the opening of the first-ever National Heirloom Exposition.

Ambitiously dubbed the “world’s fair of the heirloom and local food movement,” the Expo was attended by more than 10,000 people at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in northern California. The three-day not-for-profit event rolled out 250 vendors, 300 exhibitors, and more than 70 speakers, as well as displays of a mind-boggling 2000 varieties of heirlooms, including an artistic 20-foot tall mountain of colorful squash and melons.

To get an insider’s look at the proceedings, I spoke with two nursery owners who gave presentations there—Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs based in Virginia, and Alice Doyle, co-owner of Log House Plants in Oregon. Both were inspired by what they heard, and the folks they met in California.

A garden show veteran, Brent Heath has presented heirloom bulb talks and workshops all over the country. Yet his enthusiasm rivaled any first-timer. He liked the inclusive nature of the Expo.  Although The Petaluma Seed Bank and associated Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds were major sponsors, they welcomed competitors, Brent said. “There must have been more than 30 other seed companies there.”

And the values expressed at the Expo lined up with his own horticultural philosophy. While not organically certified, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs manage their greenhouse operations with no petro-chemicals. (More about their successful greenhouse techniques in my next column.)

Brent was in the company of farmers and growers, professionals and amateurs, all passionate about producing superior plants in a biologically balanced way. “There were tomatoes there,” he said, “you wouldn’t believe.”

Log House’s Alice Doyle certainly believes, especially about the tomatoes. Her Mighty ’Mato line combines both the past and the future. Ancient heirlooms are grafted onto modern rootstocks—with great results. For instance, heirloom taste-favorite ‘Brandywine’—a notably stingy producer—becomes profligate when powered by a contemporary disease-resistant rootstock.

Interest in these plants, Alice said, was overwhelming.  She felt that the Expo’s success demonstrated a rising demand for non-genetically modified foods. That could even signal a change in U.S farm policies.

If you see better-tasting fruits and veggies (and unusual flowers) in your future, check out theheirloomexpo.com website for more information and next year’s dates.