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Heirloom veggies are a garden treat

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Would you like to grow the same corn that was carried by the Cherokees over the Trail of Tears? How about tomatoes cultivated by Shakers in Pittsfield, Mass., or thousand-year-old beans that were found in a cave in Utah? Heirloom vegetable gardening allows gardeners — and cooks — of today to share in the delicious varieties of the past.

When we think of antiques, we usually think of objects such as furniture or pottery. Heirloom vegetables are antiques from the garden: They are defined by having been cultivated for at least 100 years. They must also carry the unique features of the first plants of their kind.

Heirloom varieties are prized not only for their lineage but also for the beautiful, unusual and flavorful vegetables and fruits their seeds yield. What's more, you can save the seeds of these plants, then grow them year after year. That's because heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, or non-hybrid, varieties: They are reproduced from the same plant species.

Generation to generation, heirloom seeds produce vegetables that look and taste like their parents. Most vegetables you find in the supermarket, on the other hand, are hybridized, or formed by controlled cross-pollination. They do not reproduce reliably, so you cannot save their seeds. The hybrid is usually more prolific than either parent and more disease-resistant, but sometimes at the expense of flavor.

Vegetables and fruit are also hybridized to withstand the stresses that produce may encounter on the way to the grocer's shelves — few shoppers want to buy the bruised tomato or dented melon.

Heirloom seeds, however, are ideal for the home gardener, or for those interested in small crops that they can grow and nurture for bountiful and delicious results. Since they are so flavorful, most heirloom vegetables require a minimum of preparation. A sprinkle of salt, a grinding of fresh pepper and a drizzle of olive oil may be all that's needed.

Here are just a few examples of the kinds of heirloom vegetables you may wish to grow or look for at your local farmstand.

Garden Peach tomato: Small and yellow with fuzzy skin; it's very sweet and grows in clusters.

Lilian's yellow tomato: Passed down from generation to generation in the Bruce family of Manchester, Texas, this tomato is lemon yellow. It is sweet, with a hint of citrus, and can weigh up to a pound.

Mule Team tomato: An all-purpose tomato that is bright red and delicious. The vigorous plants produce half- to three-quarter-pound tomatoes until the first frost.

Chocolate miniature pepper: Short, stocky 16-inch plants are covered with 2-inch fruits that ripen from green to dipped-in-chocolate brown.

Sweet Siberian watermelon: Light green, medium-size oblong melons; they weigh about 8 pounds. This variety has extremely sweet and juicy bright yellow-orange flesh.

White Wonder cucumber: Ivory-white cucumbers grow to about 7 inches long. Ideal for both pickling and slicing.

Romanesco broccoli: Chartreuse-colored broccoli has excellent taste and texture; does especially well in cooler climates.

Saving seeds

Since the turn of the century, thousands of varieties have become extinct. Growing and saving heirloom seeds means genetic diversity will be retained for future generations. And collecting your own seeds means that you will save money in the long run. Make sure to save only the seeds of plants that are vigorous and free of disease.

Plants that have seedpods, such as peas, should be allowed to go to seed; then you can pick the pods to extract the seeds. Vegetables whose flesh contains seeds, such as tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, shouldn't be picked until they're very ripe — even overripe. Remove the seeds from the flesh, making sure to remove any gel sacs in which the seeds are encased. Place the seeds in a fine-meshed sieve, and rinse thoroughly.

After you harvest the seeds, spread them out on newspaper or paper towels, and let them dry for several days. Be sure to label the seeds on the papers so you remember which are which. Move them around from time to time to ensure even drying — damp seeds will begin to germinate.

Transfer the dry seeds to airtight containers, identifying the plant name and date harvested, and store in a cool, dark spot until it's time to plant. Seeds properly stored should remain viable for five years.

Seed source

Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, Iowa, is a network of gardeners and farmers committed to the preservation and cultivation of heirloom seeds. They offer a wide variety of seeds, as well as information about seed-saving methods.

One particularly helpful book is Suzanne Ashworth's "Seed to Seed" (Seed Saver Publications, 1995).

For more information, contact: Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101; 319-382-5990. Web site: www.seedsavers.org

Many seed companies also carry heirloom seeds:

— The Cook's Garden, P.O. Box 535, Londonderry, VT 05148; 800-457-9703. Web site: www.cooksgarden.com

— Johnny's Selected Seeds, 1 Foss Hill Road, Albion, ME 04910; 207-437-4301. Web site: www.johnnyseeds.com

— Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 30 Irene Street, Torrington, CT 06790-6658; 860-482-3638. Web site: www.shepherdseeds.com

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168.Web site: www.marthastewart.com

© Martha Stewart Living Omni Media Corp.