Interested in trying your green thumb at heirloom herbs and produce, but not sure how to beat Tucson’s heat and succeed with your seedlings? It can be done—heirloom gardeners in your neighborhood are enjoying the fruits of their labors (literally) year-round. For starters, you can plant your winter vegetables—heirloom or others—in September to reap a good harvest. Our summer gardening season starts in March.
What is an “Heirloom”?
What makes an herb, fruit or vegetable an heirloom? To start with, it will be an older variety, dating back at least to 1945—some argue it should be at least 100 years old. All heirloom produce (and flowers) are “open-pollinated”; that is, future generations of the plant will retain most of the characteristics of the original, unlike hybrids.
Because they are not hybrids, many of which are raised for longer shelf life or large-scale production, heirloom vegetables come in a marvelous variety of flavors and shapes. They are typically more flavorful than what you’ll find in the supermarket, which is their main appeal to many heirloom fans.
And there are many devoted heirloom fans, making it relatively easy for interested gardeners to find and purchase heirloom seeds online or from specialty catalogs, as well as to find specific growing advice online.
Heirlooms and Hot Climates
Yes, it is possible to successfully raise heirloom produce here in Tucson. Heirloom strains are not necessarily less hardy than hybrids, and the advice here applies to any type of vegetable or herb gardening you want to try:
1. Use containers. Planting a container garden is the way to go; it allows you to move your pots into the shade when necessary—and it will be necessary. Plastic containers hold moisture better than clay, so you may prefer that. Use light-colored pots to help keep them (and the plants’ roots) cool. You can paint or cover dark containers if necessary. Also, make sure that your containers have drainage holes in the bottom. And if your pots are large, put it on wheels to make it easy to move.
2. Find or make some shade. Place your pots where they will be in the shade during the hottest hours of the day. If necessary, you can rig up “shade cloth” to cover your containers. Plants that require a lot of shade may stay under a shade cloth all day.
3. Be wise about watering. Your containers will dry out more quickly than an in-ground garden, so make sure you keep your plants’ roots cool with at least once-a-day watering. Not sure whether to water? Check the soil by poking your finger in; it if is dry from the top to about an inch down, it’s time to water. (Note that if a container does get too dry, the soil will shrink away from the pot’s edges, requiring more water than usual to soak it well.) If you use a mix of potting soil that drains well, you won’t need to worry about overwatering.
You should be able to grow just about any type of heirloom vegetable or herb in a container, as long as the container is large enough for the plant’s roots.
Savoring Splendido’s Heirloom Herbs
At Splendido, an all-inclusive community for adults 55 years and better in Tucson, the chef uses organic, heirloom produce from a local farm—which also supplies “starter plants” of heirloom herbs for Splendido’s year-round potted herb garden. The herbs, rotated seasonally, are planted in large pots with an irrigation system, and placed in an area where they get shade part of the day.
“We change them seasonally with what works best in our climate,” says Jeremy Imes, executive chef at Splendido. “But all are organic, heirloom strains of herbs, with a diversity of flavors. You can really distinguish the flavor of these from what you buy in the store.” Imes and his staff use the herbs—including varieties of basil and parsley, marjoram, thyme, chives, cilantro, and various mints—in their daily cooking, mostly adding them to sauces and sprinkling them on chicken and fish. “Splendido residents enjoy the more flavorful herbs that we grow ourselves.”
Try your hand at heirloom gardening, and you should find the results rewarding and delicious.