On Being an “Heirloom Gardener”

cornfield pumpkin, old timey cornfield pumpkin, heirloom squash, heirloom pumpkins,

I may be coining a term, but “heirloom gardeners” do exist. I am an heirloom gardener, and that’s not just because I’m getting old. Heirloom gardening is a mindset, and an heirloom gardener gardens in a particular manner. Let me explain.

An heirloom gardener tends to save seed and/or propagate varieties for years.

Related article: Mother Earth News: Heirloom Vegetables: 6 Advantages Compared to Hybrids

I rarely purchase seed, grow a crop and consume it, without saving seed for future crops. This is a mindset and a gardening methodology. To the heirloom gardener the gardening circle is not complete until the cycle is ready to start again. A seed saver does this very thing. In my mind, however, there is a subtle distinction between some seed savers and an heirloom gardener. Most seed savers are heirloom gardeners, but not all.

An heirloom gardener treasures the history, culture and relationships associated with a given variety.

There’s an emphasis on history, culture and relationships behind each variety. One might call this the variety’s “story.” For instance, the pumpkins in the feature photo are Old Timey Cornfield Pumpkins, originally from Little Mountain, SC.  A gardening friend, named Rodger Winn, sent me that seed and explained that, in his region, this pumpkin was cultivated extensively before farm mechanization. They’d plant their corn, and when the corn was about knee high, they’d plant Old Timey Cornfield Pumpkin on the edges of the field. They did this for weed suppression. As the corn grew the pumpkin vines smothered weeds on the edges of the field. When the corn dried down, the pumpkin vines would invade the field, suppressing any weeds which might take advantage of the available light. At harvest, which was done by hand, they’d harvest both pumpkins and corn. Rodger also told me that his mother used to make pies from the “green” pumpkins, the immature ones. I love this cultural info and believe we can learn from Rodger’s kin. Now I too, use this pumpkin for weed suppression. The mature pumpkins are delicious and will sometimes keep in storage for up to a year.

Old Timey Cornfield Pumpkin, Past & Future

I love to think of those who grew it back when they farmed with horses. But now, after 9 years of growing it myself Old Timey Cornfield Pumpkin is becoming my heirloom. It’s gaining a historical footprint in the Tahlequah, Oklahoma area as I grow it and share seed with others. It helps that this is the capitol of the Cherokee Nation. Some of my Cherokee friends take one look at this pumpkin and exclaim, “My grand parents grew those pumpkins!” South Carolina, after all, was Cherokee territory long ago.

Barksdale Wax Pole Beans - growing beans
Barksdale Wax Pole Beans

Related articles: Lessons learned from an Heirloom Bean  & To Make an Heirloom

More info and history on Barksdale Wax Pole Bean

There’s a story behind these crops and also behind my gardening.

When I was in kindergarten, my teacher didn’t like me. My Mom told me that the teacher didn’t like boys. Mom and Dad went to a parent teacher meeting. I’m sure they absorbed the negative input, without passing on much to me. But Dad, well, he knew that I was enamored with the ornamental pepper plant my teacher kept in the window. When he came back from that meeting, he brought a pod from that plant, and then, he helped me extract the seeds and grow 10 plants at home! That one action improved my relationship with a difficult teacher.

By Means of a Pepper, my Dad put a positive light on a negative experience.

For years, during the summer, my Dad would come home from work, change and head straight to the garden, to do a little puttering before supper. I almost always met him there and “puttered” with him. That was our time. Today, when I am in the garden, I often think of these special times with my Dad.

For years, the garden was where my Dad and I communed.

Many of the things I grow in my garden are attached to memories of special people. Many are still “gathering memories.” Heirlooms are not static. When I walk through my garden, I walk among memories. When I plant these seeds I also look to the future. In an heirloom garden the past and future often meet.


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