Heirloom Vegetables

By Joanne Ranck-Dirks.

Title photo: Deer Tongue Lettuce at Landis Valley. All photos courtesy of Landis Valley Museum, Lancaster, PA.

How is your garden planning coming along this spring? Did you remember to plant Grandma Hershey’s Sugar Peas and is there space for Deacon Dan Beets? Is this the year to plant Fisher Beans or Stoltzfus String Beans? There’s not much room for tomatoes so should you plant Mammoth German Gold, Brandywine or Belgian Beauty? Remember how good those Dr. Martin Lima Beans taste? And there’s a hot sauce recipe you’ve been saving to try. Those Hinkelhatz Peppers (translated “chicken heart”) pack quite a punch. It’s also been years since you made a ground cherry pie. Maybe it’s time to plant Reiff Ground Cherry seeds again.

The Heirloom Seed Project at the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster County has been preserving these vegetable varieties and many others for more than thirty years. We are also a keeper of the stories that surround these treasured heirlooms.

Heirloom or open-pollinated vegetables bring our history into the present with flavors and beauty from the past. Gardeners can save seeds from heirloom varieties with the assurance that the fruit from each new generation of plants will bear fruit that is similar to the fruit from the past seasons. Growing heirloom varieties not only preserves rich flavors, it is also a tribute to gardeners who valued what they grew and at the end of each growing season, saved seed for the next.

In 1986, a call went out from the Landis Valley Museum, inviting gardeners in counties across the Pennsylvania Dutch region to donate seeds that had passed down through generations of their families. The museum had a large and significant collection of farm equipment documenting 200 years of agriculture in the region, but little was recorded about what crops and vegetables had been grown throughout those years. Gardeners responded with seed donations and stories. The Heirloom Seed Project committed to continue growing and preserving those family heirloom vegetables.

Volunteers working with seed saving for the Heirloom Seed Project

The Heirloom Seed Project is staffed primarily with volunteers who tend the gardens – planting, weeding and finally harvesting beautiful ripe and delicious produce. After harvest, seeds are collected, cleaned, dried and then packaged. Gardens are carefully planned to prevent cross-pollination so that seeds remain true. Seeds are available for purchase from the Museum Gift Store and by mail-order. A seed listing is posted on the Landis Valley Museum website: https://www.landisvalleymuseum.org/explore/heirloom-seed-project/

One spring several years ago, a seed order arrived in the mail for just one packet of seeds – the Fortna White Pumpkin. The charge for shipping was higher than the price of that one packet of seeds. I pondered how to increase the value of those seeds to the customer so that she wouldn’t mind paying more in postage that she did for the seeds. Perhaps sharing the history of the pumpkin could add some value.

Seeds donated to the Heirloom Seed Project in past years were documented in an old card file. Digging into the file to learn more about the history of the Fortna White Pumpkin, I read that it had been donated 25 years earlier and had been grown by the Fortna families in Franklin and Adams Counties. To my amazement, I saw that it had been donated by the same person who was now ordering the seed!

I sent Sue a quick email and said “This is your family’s pumpkin!” She replied, “I am not the farmer my dad was, by any means!! I grew one pumpkin last year and didn’t let the seeds dry as long as I should have, and the seeds molded.”

“So I am extremely grateful that you do the hard work of keeping these heritage seeds alive – if you hadn’t had the seed, it would surely have died out with my generation. (Not to mention that all the extended family would have been so disappointed to not have a Fortna Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving – we all still think it’s the best for pies!).” I sent her two packs of seeds. Now she and her cousin share the responsibility of growing the Thanksgiving pie pumpkin.

Fortna White Pumpkins

Information gleaned from old seed catalogs also provides a back story to favorite heirlooms. From the 1890 Johnson and Stokes Seed Catalog of Philadelphia comes this testimonial for the Red Brandywine tomato:

“In the spring of 1887 a customer in Ohio sent us a small package of tomato seeds requesting us to give it a fair test on our trial grounds. A few plants were set out with 45 other varieties we were testing, both old and new. This being the last on the list, was numbered 45. To our astonishment, it completely eclipsed in size and beauty, all other varieties we were testing. Specimens when ripe, weighing three to three and one-quarter pounds each, as smooth as an apple and remarkably solid. To further still test this tomato, we sent a few packets to tomato specialists, requesting them to report on its merits. The name given it was suggested by our friend, Thomas H. Brinton of Chadd’s Ford, PA., who has probably grown and tested more varieties of tomatoes than any other person in the United States, who wrote September 25, 1888, ‘The more I see of the Tomato No. 45, the more I am pleased with it. It is certainly a magnificent, new, most valuable and distinct variety, and worthy of the name Brandywine after that most beautiful of all streams, which flows near our Quaker village.’”

Interestingly, there was no mention of the flavor of the Brandywine Tomato. Volunteers of the Heirloom Seed Project rate the Brandywine as having excellent flavor. It is a favorite and still a bestseller.

In recent years, donations of seeds preserved by families have dropped off, yet we welcome the opportunity to preserve a family heirloom and share it with others. Contact Joanne Ranck Dirks, Heirloom Seed Project Coordinator at the museum at 717-569-0401, ex. 204 or c-jranckdi@pa.gov

Order heirloom vegetable seeds mentioned in this post and others like the “Amish Paste Tomato”, “Lemon Cucumber” and “Cardinal Pole Bean” at https://www.landisvalleymuseum.org/explore/heirloom-seed-project/

Yellow Pear Tomatoes

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