By: Garden Gate staff
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The best part of growing heirloom seeds is sharing them with others. For Grandma Ausilio Riccelli, her treasure was a red pepper grown by her mother and passed on to her children and grandchildren. Even though the pepper is delicious and versatile, she grew this vegetable because it was her heritage. Heirloom plants are rooted in gardeners who valued what they grew so much that they preserved the seeds and passed them on to be grown, harvested and regrown for many years.
To connect with a community of heirloom gardeners, look for a local seed-saving group or join Seed Savers Exchange. Swap seeds, growing tips, and, of course, stories! Check out three great plants to get a heirloom garden started in our slideshow.
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‘Dwarf Gray Sugar’ pea
This snow pea dates back to the 1890s, when it was featured in seed catalogs, such as D.M. Ferry and Co.
It is short in stature, spreading to only 24 to 30 in., and perfect for small gardens or even containers. It’s also quick to ripen and easy to eat straight off the vine. Space this pea 10 to 20 ft. from another pea variety. Harvest seeds for next year when the pods are brown and dried and seeds are hardened. They will last for 3 to 4 years.
GROWING TIP Peas can be planted outdoors as long as the soil is above 50 degrees F. Plant in full sun, well-drained soil and with a structure for them to climb.
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‘Ausilio Thin Skin Italian’ pepper
This pepper wins the affection of everyone who grows and tastes it. The seeds were grown by four generations before being shared with Seed Savers. This pepper brings the perfect amount of heat — medium to high. Store seeds in a cool, dry place for up to 3 years.
To breed true, peppers need to be spaced at least 300 ft. apart, so you may want to just grow one variety at a time, or use the isolation bag technique explained with the melon at right. Seeds are ready to harvest when the pepper walls become soft.
GROWING TIP Plant indoors at least 6 weeks before hardening plants off and planting outside in soil warmer than 70 degrees F.
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‘Grandma Hadley’s’ lettuce
This delicious lettuce is perfect for beginning gardeners: It’s obvious when the seeds are ready to harvest: The flowers become feathery like a dandelion head. Pluck the seeds by grabbing the “feathers,” or pappuses, with your fingers and pulling gently. Or, bend the whole stalk and shake into a bag. Separate pappuses from seeds before storing in a cool, dry place where they can remain for up to 6 years. Plant 10 to 20 ft. from other varieties.
GROWING TIP: Lettuce likes cooler weather, so you can start seeds early and plant seedlings outdoors even when soil is 45 degrees F. Water minimally when plants are flowering for better seed quality.