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Discover heirloom Kentucky veggie crops

Bill Best has been saving seeds since the early 1970s. Photo: Kim Kobersmith
Best demonstrates how to remove seeds from a Bosnian pepper. Photo: Kim Kobersmith
Heirloom beans and tomatoes come in a rainbow of hues. Photos: Henkle’s Herbs and Heirlooms; Kim Kobersmith
Heirloom beans and tomatoes come in a rainbow of hues. Photos: Henkle’s Herbs and Heirlooms; Kim Kobersmith
Henkle’s Herbs and Heirlooms grows tomatoes from June to December. Photo: Henkle’s Herbs and Heirlooms
Hickory Cane corn is a Kentucky classic. Photo: Kim Kobersmith

Bill Best distinctly remembers the bean crop that started his lifelong journey as an heirloom seed saving advocate. In the early 1970s, the Blue Grass Energy consumer-member bought the newfangled hybrid Blue Lake beans for his first farm in Jackson County. He was not impressed; they were tough to chew, virtually inedible. On his next visit home, his mother gave him a bounty of heirloom seeds from her garden, and he hasn’t looked back. 

Heirlooms, in a bean shell, are open-pollinated through natural means like bees or birds, and their seeds have been passed down through generations. Such seeds saved from one year’s crop will yield the same true-to-type plant and fruit year after year. New varieties are born when an occasional spontaneous or mutant plant emerges. Sometimes the new variety is worth keeping, and sometimes not. 

The popularity of heirloom vegetables has increased since Best’s first taste. They are a resilient foundation for a garden; their open pollination contributes to genetic diversity, and seed saving means growers don’t need to buy seeds every year. By contrast, hybrid vegetables, bred for ease of machine harvest and long shelf life, lack much of the flavor, protein and nutrients of their heirloom brethren. 

A tangible tie to history 

Heirlooms have benefits beyond the practical, though. Each seed holds a story—a connection to those who have gardened before and who lovingly preserved and tended each unique variety. That story is often hinted at in seeds named for people (Vinson Watts), places (Basin Mountain), characteristics (Lazy Wife) and hopes (Mortgage Lifter). 

Gardener Lisa Ann Spencer found a surprising family connection through growing heirlooms. A consumer-member of Salt River Electric, she was originally attracted to open-pollinated seeds as a way to prepare for the rumored chaos of Y2K. It soon became much more. 

“I have a degree in biology, and saving my own seeds was so much fun,” she says. “I like the challenge. Some plants, like carrots and collards, take a couple of years until they go to seed.” 

While seeking out a new type of cowpea in 2006 through Seed Savers Exchange, she found the T.E. Martin Original Purplehull cowpea and realized it was named for one of her ancestors. Before the Civil War, her grandfather’s brother left Mississippi for Louisiana and took the seeds with him. Her great uncle’s descendants have kept the tradition of growing the cowpea, and she soon learned her own cousin also does. Both lineages have been growing the literal family heirloom for 150 years, unbeknownst to each other. 

Three years ago, Spencer’s Louisiana cousins passed along some seeds of another family heirloom, the T. E. Martin Original Pink-eyed butterbean. She believes she might be the only person growing and saving seeds of this rare bean. Every year in her garden, she works to keep her family heritage alive. 

Recipe idea: Spencer recommends boiling cowpeas in water and bacon grease with a few okra pods. Serve with cornbread. 

Appalachian beans 

Heritage beans have become Best’s specialty. He founded the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, which currently preserves an astounding 175 different varieties. As he became known as a collector of Appalachian heirlooms, people entrusted their family seeds to him. This bank of seeds keeps alive a piece of Appalachian history and culture. 

“The protein in beans kept a lot of mountain families from starving,” says Best. “They might have had a hog or two, but you just don’t see old photographs of fat mountaineers.” 

Best’s seed drying shed is full of a rainbow of bean colors: brown, cream, purple, green, black, red. Each of the four main types—greasy, cut short, cornfield and half runner—have their staunch advocates, but Best says the key is to allow them to mature on the plant until distinct beans can be seen inside the pod. One real indicator it is a good bean? It has to be stringed. 

Recipe idea: Best recommends cooking beans in water with a ham hock or olive oil until soft. Serve with cornbread, butter, diced onions and chopped tomatoes. 

Tie dye tomatoes 

Mark and Velvet Henkle of Henkle’s Herbs & Heirlooms produce a bountiful array of vegetables, but they are best known for their mostly heirloom tomatoes. 

“They come in a stunning variety of colors, shapes and sizes,” says Mark Henkle, “and so many different flavors.” 

The Blue Grass Energy consumer-members have mastered growing dozens of varieties in high tunnels. With this season-extending technique, they sell tomatoes at the Lexington Farmers Market and to Good Foods Co-op from June to December. 

In the spring, the Henkles provide a valuable service for gardeners who don’t start their own seeds. They offer a wide selection of plant starts, with 60 types of tomatoes, 40 types of peppers and a variety of herbs. Some of Mark Henkle’s recommended favorites are Brandywine Sudduth strain, Berkeley Tie Dye, Cherokee Green, Oxhearts Orange, Jersey Devils paste and Amish paste. 

Corn, squash, okra and more 

Perhaps the heirloom with the longest history in Kentucky is Hickory Cane corn. It was a favorite of indigenous Kentuckians and moonshiners both, and it continues to flourish in commonwealth gardens. 

A flexible variety, it can be roasted on the ear, creamed or ground for meal. 

Adam Barnes, agriculture agent at the Livingston County Extension Office, has grown cushaw in the family garden for decades. The mild striped heirloom winter squash is large and bountiful. He says it is the easiest squash to prepare—just bake with brown sugar and butter. Thanks to the Barnes family, cushaws are a staple at the county 4H Revolutionary-era reenactment campouts, where they are slow-baked over the fire. 

There are heirloom varieties of okra, melons, peppers, onions, eggplant— almost any common vegetable. Try planting at least one kind of these resilient seeds rooted in Kentucky tradition.

Heirloom cooking 

Made with heirloom tomatoes, this dish may end up becoming your family’s heirloom recipe! It’s the favorite tomato concoction of Mark Henkle of Henkle’s Herbs & Heirlooms, who shared it with Kentucky Living

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