heirloom plants, landscape design, plant selection, tomato

What’s NEW in landscaping, or WHAT THE HECK IS AN HEIRLOOM PLANT? (Part 1)

In the last couple of months, I’ve done several talks on the topic “7STEPS to a KNOCK-OUT LANDSCAPE,” which basically walks listeners through what I do when I design a garden.  While landscaping, as in any art, goes through phases of specific items or design styles being popular, the principles remain.  However, there are “new” trends that come and go.

Granny shows us HER garden!

Remember when we saw wooden cut-outs in folks’ yards?  Did anyone think Granny was really bent over, showing her undies?

The trend for the last several years, I believe, is one that will last.  In fact, it’s lasted already.  It is using HEIRLOOM PLANTS.  So what exactly IS an heirloom plant?  In general, heirloom plants are considered 1) those introduced before the mid-1940’s and  2) handed down from a past generation.  Now let the confusion begin.

ABOUT THE DATE:  Not everyone is a stickler on precise dates to qualify a plant to be an heirloom, although some horticultural groups only place plants in the HEIRLOOM category that can point to a precise linage, sort of like provenance for a piece of artwork.  Vegetables and fruits might be considered heirloom if they’ve been around since the end of World War II mainly because that’s about the time industrialized agriculture began.  Another school of thought puts the date at 1950 since the year 1951 brought introduction of hybrid varieties of plants on a broad scale from seed producers.  These hybrids, which are the love children of two different varieties (or even SPECIES), may have great taste or beautiful color or some other characteristic that is desirable, but they cannot necessarily make NEW love children.  They are often sterile.  Just like two mules – which are a cross between a horse and a donkey – are fruitless in their own way, so these hybrid plants might be.  Those with the ability to reproduce are a crap shoot, harkening back to one of the parents rather than the variety you originally purchased.

early "truck" farmers in Jacksonville, Texas

I come from a family of tomato farmers near Jacksonville, Texas.  The farm where my dad was raised – which belonged to his aunt and uncle – grew tomatoes commercially. It was called a “truck farm.”  They took their tomatoes to the train depot on a certain day each week in wooden crates (then bushel baskets) hoping they’d go home with an empty pick-up truck and a full pocket.   To sell a tomato to a wholesaler who in turn sold it to a tomato RE-seller, often grocery stores or restaurants, that tomato had to first look good, then it must travel well.  Taste did not necessarily SELL a tomato, although it might mean getting to sell to the same customer again.  So these truck farms began to grow plants that they knew to be dependable in their looks (uniform) and long-lasting (not rot before they reached their destination).  The taste or nutritional value was secondary, at best. Many of these tomatoes were hybrids BRED to have these specific traits by seed growers and then sold to the farmers.  The plants were unable to reproduce, which meant the farmers must buy new seeds every year from the seed company.  That is a cost of business they were willing to spend in order to compete, the COST of having tomatoes that looked good for a long time. So while the hybrid tomatoes might have traits you’d want to see over and over, the process to get them over and over was to buy the seeds over and over.

Which gets us to the next feature of an heirloom plant: the ability to pass it on, which I’ll discuss in part deux of WHAT’S NEW IN LANDSCAPING?  (An unadulterated personal plug here: if you are in the Houston area, I’ll be speaking on HEIRLOOM PLANTS at Cornelius Nursery on Friday… http://www.calloways.com/meet-authors)  

2 thoughts on “What’s NEW in landscaping, or WHAT THE HECK IS AN HEIRLOOM PLANT? (Part 1)”

  1. An interesting note about the influence of tomato farming in the Jacksonville, Texas area is that their highschool football stadium is “The Tomato Bowl.” Our Athens football team used to play football there in highschool.

    1. Ronny, that’s where my daddy went to high school. Are they still the Jacksonville Indians? The train depot was close by, from what I understand, too. We in Athens claim to be the Black-eye Pea Capital; Jacksonville claims to be the Tomato Capital of the World. You can see lots of things my family put together about farming in the area if you go out to the East Texas Arboretum to Bob’s Barn we dedicated to my dad for his 70th birthday. Great collection of photos, including the Fields boys from Athens with their dog driving their tractor. Bet the SPCA would have a CAT about that one!

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