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Gardening and More: Heirloom vegetables: plants with a storied past

CHECK OUT THOSE TOMATOES — Jim Tammaro, a volunteer at the Genesee Country Village and Museum, will speak on “Growing Heirloom Vegetables” at 1 p.m. on Oct. 5 and 6, at the museum’s fall festival. He built this large trellis to support two of the varieties of heirloom tomatoes he grows in his own yard. On the left are Kellogg’s Breakfast tomatoes, which will get bright yellow, and on the right are Rutgers tomatoes, which were developed in Rutgers, NJ. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.

MUMFORD — There are three things a plant needs, in order to be called an heirloom plant, according to Jim Tammaro, a volunteer at the Genesee Country Village and Museum.

Tammaro will speak on “Growing Heirloom Vegetables,” during the Fall Festival and Agricultural Fair at the museum, located at 1410 Flint Hill Road in Mumford, NY. The event will be held from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5 and 6, and he will speak at 1 p.m. on both days.

To be considered an heirloom plant, it must be an open pollinated variety, not a hybrid, said Tammaro, who has been growing heirloom plants in his own garden since the 1980s. The seeds must produce the true plant, year after year. If you save the seeds from a hybrid, you might get a plant that resembles one of the parent plants, rather than the plant from which you took the seeds. Hybrids can also be sterile.

The second criterion for being called an heirloom is that the plant must have been grown for at least 50 years, although Tammaro said he prefers plants that have been grown for at least 100 years.

Finally, in order to be called an heirloom, a plant must have its own history, Tammaro said.

The gardener became interested in heirloom plants through flowers that were passed down through the generations of his own family. Starting in 1910, his great-grandmother grew a dianthus called “maiden pinks” in the garden of her Rochester home. In 1960, his aunt took some of the plants to her home. In the 1980s, when his aunt died at the age of 93, the plants were turned over to Tammaro.

Now Tammaro carries on the legacy, growing the maiden pinks outside the front door of his Williamsville home.

“The people who fought in the Civil War and the people who were pioneers aren’t around anymore, but the plants they grew are still around,” said Tammaro, who is retired from the New York State Archives and teaches library and information studies at the University at Buffalo. “That’s the attraction, for me.”

One plant that Tammaro grows, the Lutz Long Keeper beet, can be traced back to the Pilgrims, according to folklore. The Pilgrims didn’t need a beet that was the tastiest, he said; they wanted a vegetable that was large and would store well, so that they had something to last through the winter. The beets get 5 or 6 inches in diameter and, as the name implies, store well.

Heirloom plants often have interesting names. The Nebraska Wedding Tomato is a yellow tomato that Tammaro said is a little less acidic and sweeter than other tomatoes. Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomato, another yellow variety that is like a beefsteak tomato, wasn’t named for the cereal company, but for a 19th century botanist who started a number of tomato varieties.

Tammaro has grown several varieties of heirloom tomatoes that are white.

“If you close your eyes, they taste just like red tomatoes,” he said, “but I just couldn’t get past the color.”

When I visited Tammaro in the middle of September, he still had lots of tomatoes on the vine. He believes that’s because he doesn’t use tomato cages, which are too small for these large plants. Instead, he built a trellis that he believes not only provides the proper support for the plants, it also allows for better air flow. He ties the branches of the tomatoes to the trellis with rags. He also tied the trellis to the fence, for extra strength.

In addition to the talks on heirloom vegetables, the fall festival at the Genesee Country Village and Museum will include displays and judging of heirloom vegetables. There will also be competitions in 150 categories, including livestock, baked goods, pumpkins, needlecrafts and broom making. You can take in a 19th-century magic show, attend a Punch & Judy puppet show and enjoy other entertainment.

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Connie Oswald Stofko is publisher of, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email


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