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Top 10 Tips for Growing Heirloom Vegetables

Heirloom vegetables are favorite crops for many gardeners and farmers. We value them for their flavor, stories, diversity, and beauty. While some heirlooms can be tricky, many heirloom vegetables are as easy to grow as their hybrid counterparts. Many gardeners get started with hybrids because that’s what’s often available at local hardware stores and garden centers, but that doesn’t mean those beginners can’t grow heirlooms. Here are a few tips to ensure you have success growing heirloom vegetables. 

So What is an Heirloom Vegetable?

There’s no official definition of an heirloom. Heirlooms are just open-pollinated varieties that farmers and gardeners have saved for generations. At Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, we consider heirlooms to be open-pollinated varieties bred before 1940. Read more about why we grow heirloom seeds.

1. Select Varieties Carefully

You may find heirloom vegetables that are particularly well-suited to your gardening conditions. Growers carefully selected heirloom varieties over generations for specific traits. Sometimes these were traits like appearance and flavor, but often, these included good adaptation to local climatic conditions, disease resistance, drought tolerance, and other handy characteristics. 

2. Be Vigilant About Disease

No crop is resistant to all diseases, and heirloom vegetables are no different. Careful crop rotation, soil management, and cover cropping can help prevent a myriad of diseases. You should also practice good garden hygiene, removing diseased plant material and sterilizing tools that may have come into contact with diseased plants or soil.

3. Water Consistently

Avoiding over or under-watering can significantly improve your yields. Overwatering can lead to tomato splitting issues, increased fungal diseases, and poor-quality produce. Underwatering can lead to poor germination, failure to thrive, increased disease pressure, and other problems. Learn how to water correctly and consistently. Use a timer and drip tape if necessary.

4. Get Your Soil Tested

What seeds you bought doesn’t matter if your soil isn’t healthy. The best way to build good soil is to understand what you’re starting with. Getting your soil tested is quite affordable and well worth the effort.

Tomato trellis of string weaving at Twin Oaks Community Farm

5. Prune and Trellis Heirloom Vegetables

Especially in the hot and humid midsummer months in the south, good circulation is vital in helping prevent fungal disease, so prune and trellis your plants as needed. Trellises may also be necessary to avoid lodging on plants with heavy crops like larger pepper varieties. Crops you can trellis include tomatoes, peppers, winter squash, cucumbers, peas, pole beans, and more.

6. Space and Thin Generously

It can be tempting to cram more than is advised into your garden, but it may not be worth it! Follow spacing recommendations for larger plants like watermelons and tomatoes and thin smaller crops like carrots and beets as needed. A few appropriately spaced plants will be healthier and produce more than many tightly-packed unhealthy ones.

7. Use Mulch Around Heirloom Vegetables

We recommend mulching around any heirloom vegetable crop as soon as possible. Mulch helps prevent soil splash during watering or heavy rain, conserves moisture, surpasses weeds, adds organic matter, and helps regulate soil temperatures. 

8. Harvest When You’re Ready to Eat

While it’s not always possible, many heirloom vegetables especially tender crops like lettuce and sugary crops like sweet corn, are tastiest when prepared quickly after being harvested. If possible, try to eat, cook, or preserve produce soon after harvesting.

9. Get Transplants Off to a Good Start

If you’re starting heirloom vegetables like peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and onions indoors, it’s essential to do it properly and ensure you grow healthy, productive transplants. Provide supplemental light, adequate water and drainage, proper temperatures, and pot them up as needed.

10. Save Seed

Saving seeds from your heirloom vegetables can help adapt a variety to your local conditions over time. You’re also helping to preserve a variety with future generations, saving a little money, and developing a new skill. Beans like those pictured above are a great crop to start with! Check out this post to learn to save bean seeds.

Growing heirloom vegetables is well worth the effort. They add incredible diversity, flavor, and beauty to your garden. If you’re growing heirlooms this year, follow these tips to help you succeed.

10 Mini Vegetables You’ll Adore

Bigger isn’t always better! These ten mini vegetables provide incredible beauty and flavor in little packages. They’re great for folks looking to add something unique to their garden or work within a small space.

1. Chires Baby Sweet Corn

Do you know the little ears of corn popular in Asian stir-fries? That’s what Chires is great for. Harvest your Chires soon after the silks emerge, and they make a tasty, crunchy addition to salads, stir-fries, and kabobs. If allowed to mature and dry on the plant, they can be used for popcorn. These little guys can also be blanched and frozen or pressure canned for winter use. 

This variety produces 3-5 foot stalks, with 8-12 ears per stalk. The ears are 2-3 inches long. Chires are easy to grow, as corn earworms don’t have time to do damage, and corn smut is rarely a problem.

2. Doe Hill Golden Bell Sweet Peppers

If you’ve struggled to grow large bell peppers, you might want to try these Doe Hill Golden Bells. They’re high-yielding, widely adapted, and disease resistant. We love the miniature (1 x 2¼ in.) flattened, orange bell peppers they produce. The peppers have sweet, fruity, multidimensional flavor and keep well.

This pre-1900 family heirloom came to us from the Doe Hill area in Highland County, Virginia. It was introduced by SESE in 2000.

3. Plum Granny (Queen Anne Pocket) Melon

Interestingly, these melons aren’t typically grown for eating. While they are edible, their flavor is rather bland. Instead, these tennis ball-sized melons are usually grown for their incredible melon fragrance. They’re also quite beautiful. Their skin is yellow with maroon stripes. 

Plum Granny Melons are an Appalachian heirloom that was brought to Appalachia with European settlers. In Victorian times, these melons were sometimes carried in pockets to mask unpleasant odors.

4. Mexican Sour Gherkin (Mouse Melon, Sandita)

These tenacious vines bear many 5⁄8 in. x 7⁄8 in. fruits with skin like tiny watermelons. They’re a sure conversation piece for your garden, and they taste good too! Immature, they taste like cucumbers; when fully mature, they taste like pickled cucumbers.

We recommend you trellis Mexican Sour Gherkins. Kids and adults will love snacking on these if planted along a garden path. They’ll bear until frost.Tom Thumb Lettuce (mini vegetables)

5. Tom Thumb Bibb (Butterhead) Lettuce

This space-saving miniature butterhead dates to before 1850! It’s perfect for those with tiny gardens or individuals who only need a little bit of lettuce at one time. Just make sure to sow several successions!

Tom Thumb heads are about the size of an apple and feature tender, crumpled, medium-green leaves. Popular in some restaurants, the heads can be used whole in individual salads.

6. Everglades Cherry Tomato

Many people don’t have the time or space to grow large rows of tomatoes, but most people could find space on a patio or balcony for a potted plant. A single, potted Everglades Cherry will provide you with a surprising amount of fresh tomatoes throughout the season! These vigorous, disease-resistant plants will bear right up until frost. 

Everglades Cherries produce sweet, dark pink, ½ in. fruits. They’re similar to Matt’s Wild Cherry, but pinker, with some differences in flavor. A relatively new variety to SESE, the seedstock for Everglades was provided by Melissa DeSa of Florida.

Check out our other post, Grow Anywhere: Tips for Container Gardening.

7. Roseland Small White Pickling Cucumbers

SESE introduced this North Carolina heirloom in 2016. In the early ’70s, Gordon Shronce’s sister Evelyn Allran received seed from a neighbor in the Roseland community near Lincolnton, NC.

Roseland Small produces loads of early, blocky white cucumbers. Gordon likes to pick them at 3 in. or less, but they’re still mild and tender to 7 in. long, great sliced or pickled.

8. Morden Midget (Morden Mini) Eggplant

The Morden Mini is an excellent short-season variety for those farther north! It was developed in 1958 by Morden Experimental Farm, Manitoba, Canada. In our rare cool summers here in Virginia, it produces better harvests in June and July than our other varieties.

The short 18 to 30-inch plants also perform well in containers for those with limited space. Morden Mini produces 3 to 4-inch dark purple fruits.

9. Aji Ayuyo Peppers

This Peruvian heirloom is both beautiful and tasty. It would excel in edible landscape producing multicolor 1 inch by 1-inch peppers with a beautiful, shiny, glassy look. The plants grow to about 3 feet in height.

The Aji Ayuyo Peppers ripen from purple to cream to orange to red. They have a sweet, juicy exterior and very hot seeds.Black Cherry Tomato (mini vegetables)

10. Black Cherry Tomato

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes are always a favorite. They’re delicious and beautiful, but they require a lot of space and effort. These little Black Cherries have a similar flavor and appearance in a smaller package. 

The plants are vigorous and produce dusky purple 1-inch fruits with black highlights and full-bodied flavor. They’re an indeterminate variety and are generally ready to harvest in just 63 days.

Whether you just love adorable vegetables or are trying to save space, giving a few of these ten tiny varieties might be great for your garden. Fall in love with the incredible fragrance of Plum Granny Melons, the gem-like appearance of Aji Ayuyo Peppers, or the complex flavor of Black Cherry tomatoes this season!

10 Easy-to-Grow Heirloom Flowers

When most people think about planting heirlooms, they think of colorful, quirky tomatoes and other vegetables. Of course, we love heirloom veggies, but there’s a lot to love about heirloom flowers too! Growing them helps support pollinators, wildlife, and beneficial insects. It also preserves biological diversity. Here are ten easy-to-grow heirloom flowers that are perfect for beginners.


Poppies are one of our favorite flowers to fall sow. These cool weather loving beauties can also be sown in early spring. They germinate best when soil temperatures are around 60°F and are quick to bring beauty to the garden.

Poppies are an excellent choice for gardeners trying to maximize their garden space. They provide incredible, early-season beauty and seed pods later in the season. The seed pods make lovely additions to dried arrangements and wreaths, and the seeds inside the pods are edible and perfect for baked goods and salad dressings.


Cosmos are some of the least finicky annual flowers. They’ll tolerate poor soils, partial shade, and drought once established. Direct sow cosmos when the soil is about 70°F after all danger of frost has passed or start them indoors about 4 to 6 weeks before your last frost for earlier blooms.

Some of our favorite heirloom cosmos include Mexican Cosmos, Sensation Mix Cosmos, and Mona’s Orange Cosmos (pictured above). They have a long bloom period, and deadheading encourages them to continue. They’ll also help to attract pollinators and birds, which eat the seeds, to your garden. The petals of Cosmos sulphureus are edible.


Zinnias are the queens of the cut flower garden. The great thing about zinnias is that the more you cut, the more they’ll keep blooming. If you’re not using them for cut flowers and just want to enjoy them in the garden, keep up with deadheading to prolong their bloom period.

We carry two heirloom zinnias Peruvian Red and Peruvian Yellow. They’re both easy to direct sown after your last frost. They can also be started indoors and transplanted out after your last frost date for earlier blooms.


Don’t think of sunflowers as ordinary. There is so much variation in sunflower varieties. From the frosted looking Silverleaf Sunflower to the towering 7 to 9 foot stalks of the Seneca Sunflower to the brilliant blooms of Red Torch Tithonia there’s something for everyone.

Sunflowers are easy to grow, and a great choice for gardening with young children; their large seeds are easy to sow. Larger varieties also make excellent trellises for pole beans and other vining plants.


These tall spikes of flowers are biennial, meaning they bloom the second year. They can be started indoors or direct sown. Plant hollyhocks in areas that receive full sun. Check out our post Cottage Garden: Growing Hollyhocks for more instructions. 

Especially in windy areas, hollyhocks may need staking to prevent lodging. You can also grow them along a fence and use twine or fabric to secure them as they mature. Hollyhocks will self-seed and if allowed to naturalize in a bed, can provide blooms every year. 

Heirloom Flowers (Grandpa Ott's Morning Glories)

Morning Glories

An old favorite, morning glories produce vigorous vines climbing up to 15 feet! Their trumpet-shaped flowers are excellent for attracting pollinators, and they look fantastic climbing fences and porch railings. They can be grown in the garden or in large containers. 

Morning glories should be planted with a trellis where they’ll receive full sun. Soak seeds two days before planting, changing the water every 12 hours for best results. Then direct sow or transplant them after frost.

One of our favorite morning glories is Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory (pictured above), a family heirloom from Diane Ott Whealy. This variety is one of the original varieties that started Seed Saver’s Exchange and the whole heirlooms movement. 


While there are some perennial asters, the heirloom aster we carry, Crego Giant Mixed Colors, is a large annual. They grow up to 3 feet tall and make excellent cut flowers.

Asters can be easily direct sown or transplanted. They germinate best when the soil temperature reaches 70°F and should be planted after your last frost in a spot that receives full sun.

Love-Lies-Bleeding (Amaranth)

Crimson tassels up to 24 in. long “drip” from these showy plants. Love-Lies-Bleeding looks excellent in floral displays, whether fresh or dried. 

This striking heirloom requires little care. Direct sow Love-Lies-Bleeding after the danger of frost has passed. It should be planted in full sun and is rather drought-resistant. Larger plants may benefit from staking for the best display.


A native perennial, coreopsis is excellent for attracting pollinators and birds to your garden. It’s also a great natural dye and yields a broad range of colors. 

Coreopsis is an annual plant, but it self-sows readily and will naturalize in meadow plantings. Direct sow or transplant out coreopsis after danger of frost has passed in full sun or partial shade. 

Jewels of Opar (Fame Flower)

This purslane relative is easy to grow and has a multitude of uses! The mild, succulent leaves are great in salads and sandwiches or as a spinach substitute. Native to parts of the South and the Caribbean, it also has a history of medicinal use. The seed stalks are great additions to dried arrangements with seed pods that dry to shades of orange, red, brown, gold, and grey.

Transplant or direct sow Jewels of Opar after all danger of frost has passed. Self-sowing readily, Jewels of Opar may naturalize. It’s perennial in zones 8 and up.

Find out more about growing Jewels of Opar here.

Growing heirlooms helps preserve biodiversity and makes your garden unique! Plant a few of these ten easy-to-grow heirloom flowers this season.