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Gardeners taking notice of heirloom plants

By Marty Minchin
Correspondent

Many people have become increasingly fond of backyard gardening and eating homegrown food, to the point where they now look beyond the usual plants for varieties offering different flavors, colors – and names.

Enter heirloom plants.

Heirlooms are lesser-known types grown in earlier eras, often passed down through families. Heirloom plants are pollinated by birds, wind, insects or other natural methods.

Take tomatoes, for example.

This year, Roma, beefsteak and cherry tomatoes should look out for some serious competition: There also will be Mr. Stripey, Black Krim and Mortgage Lifter tomatoes headed to market in the next few weeks.

Charlotte-area garden experts say local gardeners are becoming increasingly interested in heirloom plants.

“Heirloom plants usually have better flavor,” said Don Rosenberg, Charlotte-based owner of the Instant Organic Garden website and author of two gardening books. “They have an unusual appearance, and they breed true for next year.

“They really make the whole garden more interesting.”

The most plentiful heirloom garden plants are tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. They are noted for their unusual size, colors and flavor. Mr. Stripey heirloom tomatoes can weigh up to 24 ounces and usually are yellow or light orange with red stripes.

Bob Brawley, owner of Brawley Garden Center in Mooresville, said he sells eight kinds of heirloom tomato plants.

Brawley recommends gardeners new to heirlooms also plant traditional tomatoes. Heirlooms are not bred to resist disease and will not produce as much fruit as traditional plants.

This year, Brawley Garden Center is selling the Brandywine, a plant from California, where heirloom tomato-plant seedlings from South America have been grafted onto hardier rootstock. That has led to a stronger heirloom plant that will produce more fruit.

Brawley said he expects the Brandywines to sell quickly, even though they are significantly more expensive.

“We were only able to get 100 plants this year, but I think grafted heirlooms are going to be the thing of the future for people who want to grow heirlooms,” he said. “People are already calling and looking for them.”

Gardeners can buy heirloom seeds or seedlings at local garden centers, which now carry some locally grown heirloom plants due to demand, Rosenberg said.

Wait out the cold

While garden centers are filling with young plants, gardening experts say you should hold off planting spring and summer plants until April 15. That’s generally accepted as the last day there is a threat of frost in the Charlotte area.

Even if temperatures feel spring-like before then, there is still a chance of an overnight freeze that could kill young plants.

“People are chomping at the bit right now to get out and plant and start digging in the dirt,” said Nick Waddell, general manager of Rountree Plantation garden center in southwest Charlotte.

The extended cold weather this year has drawn plenty of complaints and even threats against Punxsutawney Phil, the currently infamous groundhog who predicted an early spring, but gardeners say the Charlotte area is experiencing a normal winter.

But the wet winter will give spring gardens a good start, and the seasonal temperatures mean more time to enjoy winter vegetables and prepare for spring and summer crops.

Time to prepare

While fall generally is considered the best time to plant trees and shrubs, gardeners committed to watering can plant now.

The cooler fall and winter temperatures allow roots to get established before enduring the heat of summer.

“Fall can be more forgiving, but it’s perfectly fine to be planting things in the spring,” Waddell said. “You really need to just stay on top of watering, especially as we get into the hotter months.”

Summer and spring vegetable gardeners should start preparing the soil for planting, said Anita Gimon, Union County master gardener volunteer.

Now is the time to mulch and weed; if you haven’t planted a winter garden, prepare for summer by adding compost or high-quality garden soil, Gimon said.

Andrea Sprott, curator of the Elizabeth Lawrence Garden at Wing Haven, said gardeners who let their beds sit over the winter should clear out old plants.

She cautioned gardeners who may be enticed to plant mature flowers from some stores.

“Those have come out of a greenhouse,” she said. “If we get a late, hard frost, that’s really going to take that plant back.”

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marty? Email her at martyminchin@gmail.com.
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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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