Heirloom gardens bring the past alive. It allows us to share something with American gardeners from earlier eras. These may also be called heritage or traditional gardening, or even granny gardens.
When we’re engaged in heirloom gardening, we’re preserving some aspect of our culture. Sometimes the plants are passed down from one generation of gardeners to another.
Heirloom gardens are particularly associated with Southern gardens, but they’re appropriate for all areas of the country.
The beauty of heirloom gardens is twofold. Naturally, they are lovely. But they also help create a sense of place, perhaps a feeling of familiarity. This means they are suitable for traditionally styled homes in newer subdivisions.
Those living in older homes may even wish to try to restore or recreate an heirloom garden using authentic plant species from the time when the house was built.
Often heirloom varieties of flowers and vegetables tend to be open-pollinated. This means you can save seeds. Unlike many modern varieties, these will come true from seed. Examples of these heirloom varieties would be the scarlet runner bean, which Thomas Jefferson grew hundreds of years ago. This is often grown as an ornamental edible crop.
There may not be a precise definition of heirloom plants. However, if one has been around for 50-100 years, I would consider it an heirloom. The lovely double file viburnum would certainly qualify. Robert Fortune brought it back to the West from China many years ago. The snowball viburnum is an old-fashioned Colonial era plant.
The charm of heirloom varieties is often due to their individuality. The heirloom tomatoes I’ve seen have interesting shapes, colors, and features the newer ones lack. And of course the heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables will almost always have more flavor than their modern counterparts.
You’ll find there are many books on heirloom gardens and heirloom plants. “American Household Botany-a History of Useful Plants 1620-1900” by Judith Sumner from Timber Press goes much further than most titles. This focuses on both cultivated and native species that were used either for practical or ornamental purposes, including herbal plants, dyes, foods, fiber, textiles, and woods. Using primary sources of the period, the author reveals just how the plants enriched the lives of the people. The first chapter places the era into its historical context and explains the role that New World plants played with sections on Native American agriculture, Puritan gardens, nurseries and plantsmen.