21 Heirloom Greens to Plant This Spring

Heirloom vegetables represent our heritage crops, cultural foodways, and selections preserved for exceptional flavor and growing qualities. The term “heirloom” varies when it comes to vegetables. Heirloom can mean plants grown before 1951, when the first hybrids became commercially available, or antique varieties passed down from generation to generation for preservation. 

Some seeds have ancestral roots in Africa and Asia, or European varieties as old as 400 years, or with indigenous cultures who have cultivated selections for centuries. Today’s heirlooms carry these strains, refined and adapted to geographical growing conditions. Not all are suited for commercial agriculture, where selections relate to durability in shipping, uniform appearance, and ability to grow across a broad area. Heirlooms often boast superior flavor and tenderness fresh from the plant.

Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated (not hybrids) and come true from seed. Seeds are saved from season to season for the next planting. Fortunately, many of these significant crops are readily available on the seed market today for growing and preserving in our own gardens and for enriching genetic diversity among plants. Let’s explore a few favorite heirlooms and a glimpse of their history as we get planting this spring.

‘Brandywine’ Tomato

The ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes require support due to their indeterminate growth.

‘Brandywine’ tomatoes are a classic garden favorite and Amish heirloom named for Brandywine Creek in Chester County, Pennsylvania. These beauties are among the best-known heirloom plants and are famous for their flavor and large fruits. The original ‘Brandywine’ is pink, while other strains are deep red.

As with some heirlooms, their history is a little muddled. Johnson and Stokes introduced ‘Brandywine’ in 1889 from seeds from a customer in Ohio. More strains of ‘Brandywine’ are on the market today. Try ‘OTV Brandywine’ for heat-tolerant and productive plants with plenty of usable red tomatoes.

Rich in flavor, ‘Brandywine’ is wonderful right off the bush but also suited for canning, roasting, and sauces. The beefsteak fruits grow to a pound and are ready to pick in mid to late summer.

Sow tomato seeds indoors six weeks before your area’s final frost, and move them outdoors when it’s warm and sunny. ‘Brandywine’ is an indeterminate grower, which means it will continue growing and setting fruits all season. It needs staking, caging, or a trellis for support.

‘Lemon’ Cucumber

Two Lemon cucumbers, plump and green, nestled among vines and leaves, promising a refreshing crunch. Their rounded forms hint at the tangy zest within, ready to invigorate salads or garnish plates with a burst of flavor.This cucumber variety has fast-growing vines that yield well with consistent moisture.

Lemon cucumbers are a delightful garden addition with unique fruits. They bear lemon-sized cucumbers in sunny yellow with a crisp, light flavor free of bitterness (and they’re burpless, too). Bite into these round cucumbers like an apple for refreshment right off the vine, or use them for slicing or pickling.

A popular Australian original, lemon cucumbers came to the U.S. market in 1894 when listed in Samual Wislon’s 1894 catalog in Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania. Mr. Wilson was an avid seedsman of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and livestock feed.

Lemon cucumber vines are fast-growing and produce a high yield early in the season. They’re disease and drought-resistant, but they benefit from consistent moisture. Start seeds indoors two to four weeks before the final frost or direct sow in warm conditions. Train seedlings on a trellis or a 12” mounded hill with six feet of room to run.

‘Cherokee Purple’ Tomato

A close-up of 'Cherokee Purple' tomatoes hanging from the vine, showcasing their rich color and texture. In the background, a sunlit red tomato and lush foliage create a vibrant, organic scene, evoking the essence of a bountiful harvest.A pre-1890 tomato variety called ‘Cherokee Purple’ is known for its resistance to cracking.

‘Cherokee Purple’ is one of the best purple beefsteak tomatoes available. Its shiny, dusky rose purple fruits yield pinkish-red flesh with a rich, sweet flavor. Large and juicy tomatoes ripen mid-season through frost.

‘Cherokee Purple’ dates to Tennessee pre-1890 with ties to Cherokee Indian origin. Seed Savers Exchange introduced ‘Cherokee Purple’ in 1991 from heirloom tomato expert Craig LeHollier.

Many large heirlooms and other beefsteak tomatoes are susceptible to cracking and defects because of their size, but ‘Cherokee Purple’ is noted for its resistance to these and its productive fruiting. Long vines are indeterminate and reach up to nine feet. Support stems with a trellis, cage, or stakes.

‘Black Beauty’ Eggplant

'Black Beauty' eggplants, glossy and compact, sway from lush green branches. Their dark, sleek skin contrasts with the verdant foliage, creating a striking visual. The vibrant leaves provide a lively backdrop to the elegant, midnight-hued eggplants. ‘Black Beauty’ eggplants thrive when started indoors 10-12 weeks before the final frost.

These heirloom eggplants really are beautiful, with shiny, dark purple fruits and leafy plants with lavender blooms. ‘Black Beauty’ is a Burpee 1902 introduction and has been a favorite ever since for its large fruits and delicate flavor.

‘Black Beauty’ eggplant originates from an 1880s cross between ‘Black Pekin’ Chinese eggplant and ‘Large Early Purple.’ The fruits are one to three pounds and have tender skin (no need to peel). 

It’s recommended to start seeds indoors 10-12 weeks before your final frost date and move seedlings outdoors one to two weeks after the frost. To direct sow in the garden, wait until soil temperatures warm to 70°F (21°C) for best growth. These compact growers do well in containers, too.

‘Yellow Pear’ Tomato

A close-up of 'Yellow Pear' tomatoes and delicate vine, showcased against a lush green backdrop. The petite, sun-kissed tomatoes boast a radiant yellow hue, promising sweet and tangy flavors reminiscent of summer's warmth and abundance.Heirloom ‘Yellow Pear’ tomatoes are versatile and prolific producers.

‘Yellow Pear’ produces masses of small one-to-two-inch pear-shaped golden tomatoes. Pretty and flavorful, the little pears are tangy and grow prolifically throughout the season.

Heirloom ‘Yellow Pear’ tomatoes date to Europe in the 1700s, and maybe earlier. American colonists used them for pickling, canning, and flavoring soups, but they’re delicious fresh from the vine.

Many strains of yellow pear tomatoes are available today and are easy-to-grow, vigorous, and heavy producers. Heirloom yellow pears are indeterminate, with long vines that produce fruits all season.

‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ Pole Bean

A vibrant 'Cherokee Trail of Tears' pole bean climbs gracefully along a metal trellis, basking in the warm sunlight. In the backdrop, a lush green tree and assorted plants create a serene and verdant setting.The ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ pole bean reaches six inches in length.

Beans have been popular heirloom and pass-along vegetables for centuries. The ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ pole bean has a powerful story to tell, as it was carried along the Trail by the Cherokee from Tennessee to Oklahoma in 1839.

This pole bean boasts purple-striped green pods and shiny black beans. Plants are vigorous and productive, and pods reach six inches long. Harvest frequently to promote more beans or let them dry on the vine.

Use this heirloom pole bean as a fresh snap or dried for future cooking. They’ll need warm soils to thrive and do well with direct seeding in the garden as temperatures increase.

‘Golden Bantam’ Corn

A 'Golden Bantam' corn partially revealed, showcasing its kernels under the husk. Fresh green leaves nestled beside the corn, hinting at its farm-fresh origin and evoking a sense of natural harvest abundance.This early sweet corn variety produces two sturdy ears per stalk.

Introduced by Burpee in 1902, ‘ Golden Bantam’ became the corn variety to beat. It features sweet, yellow kernels on five-foot stalks. This yellow corn was the first of its kind to be popular beyond its white-kerneled predecessors.

‘Golden Bantam’ often bears two sturdy ears per stalk. The classic corn flavor is sweet when boiled or roasted and freezes well on the cob.

This early sweet corn does well in cold spring soils. Direct sow it early in the season after the final frost. Corn needs regular water in fertile, well-drained soils to thrive.

‘White Wonder’ Cucumber

Amidst green foliage, a 'White Wonder' cucumber emerges, its petite form contrasting in yellow hues. The compact vegetable promises freshness and flavor, enticing in its simplicity. Surrounding leaves bask in sunlight, their textured surfaces hinting at nature's intricate beauty.Cultivate ‘White Wonder’ cucumbers post-spring frost for optimal growth.

These heirloom cucumbers start bright, pale green, and mature to ivory white. ‘White Wonder’ cukes grow up to seven inches – easy to spot among the dark, leafy foliage. The flesh is tender, and the flavor is crisp.

‘White Wonder’ is a W. Atlee Burpee introduction from 1893, who received the seeds from a customer from Western New York. The vines are fast-growing and heat-tolerant. Enjoy ‘White Wonder’ straight off the vine or for a striking pickle selection.

Plant ‘White Wonder’ after the spring’s final frost. They’ll thrive in the heat with regular water and fertile, well-draining soils. 

‘Jimmy Nardello’ Sweet Pepper

A close-up reveals the vibrant hue of 'Jimmy Nardello' sweet peppers, their glossy surface reflecting light. Each pepper, a radiant red, exudes a tempting allure, hinting at the succulent sweetness within, awaiting culinary exploration.Italian heirloom ‘Jimmy Nardello’ sweet peppers boast a sweet, mildly spicy taste.

Heirloom peppers are among my favorite crops to grow because of their easy care and diverse flavors in all kinds of colors, shapes, and intensity levels. Let’s start with the reliable and sweet ‘Jimmy Nardello’ pepper from the Basilicata region of Italy. Mr. Nardello’s mother and father brought seeds to the U.S. when they immigrated in 1887.

These Italian peppers have a sweet, mildly spicy flavor with a hint of roasted apples. The plants produce five- to ten-inch-long glossy red peppers, perfect for frying, cooking, or adding to fresh salsas. 

This heirloom favorite is well-adapted to a variety of climates during the warm season. Sow seeds indoors eight to ten weeks before the final frost date, and move plants outdoors when days are warm (70°F or 21°C) and nights are above 55°F (13°C). Due to the prolific peppers, plants may need staking.

‘Jackson Wonder Bush’ Bean

A close-up of Jackson Wonder Bush beans, clustered together and suspended delicately. Lush green leaves gently cradle the beans, framing their vivid colors against the backdrop of the garden.The ‘Jackson Wonder Bush’ Bean is a heat-tolerant plant with compact growth.

When picked fresh, this vintage butterbean (or lima) bush bean is red and fades to buff with pretty purple and black mottling as it dries. Introduced in the 1880s by Georgia farmer Thomas Jackson, this heirloom is tough, productive, and heat and drought-tolerant.

While it withstands hot southern summers, growers prize ‘Jackson Wonder’ for its adaptability in various climate conditions and regions. The compact plants are easy to work with, and their prolific three-inch pods hold three to five seeds each.

Direct sow ‘Jackson Wonder’ at least two weeks after the last frost. It prefers warm soils to germinate and grow, with regular water and good drainage.

‘Stowell’s Evergreen’ Corn

A pale 'Stowell's Evergreen' corn, its husk peeled back to reveal the kernels. In the background, a blur of lush green corn stalks sets the scene for a thriving summer harvest.This popular late-season corn variety produces two large ears per stalk.

‘Stowell’s Evergreen’ was the standard white sweet corn before the now widely available ‘Silver Queen.’ This old sweet corn is reportedly of Indigenous American stock and refined by Nathan Newman Stowell of Burlington, New Jersey, in 1880. 

‘Stowell’s Evergreen’ quickly gained popularity for home and market growers. Ears with wide, white-blended kernels reach eight to nine inches long for a late-season harvest. Like ‘Golden Bantam,’ single stalks can produce two strong ears that are excellent for cooking or freezing.  

This historic variety is noted to withstand drought but does best with even moisture in well-drained soils. Sow seeds outdoors after the threat of frost has passed.

‘Clemson Spineless’ Okra

A 'Clemson Spineless' okra plant stands tall, showcasing its lush green leaves, delicate flower, and a budding okra pod. In the background, a soft blur hints at the presence of neighboring plants in this thriving garden scene.Harvest ‘Clemson Spineless’ pods when they’re young for tender texture.

My non-southern gardener friends tell me that okra is an acquired taste, but to me, the plants are worth growing for their highly ornamental and cultural value (plus, they’re tasty and versatile!). Plants grow vigorously with small, hibiscus-like flowers, attractive palmate leaves, and striking okra seed pods.

Heirloom okra varieties include ‘Burgundy,’ with a striking, deep maroon pod. ‘Choppee’ has been grown by the Jacobs family near Georgetown, South Carolina, since the 1800s. And ‘Clemson Spineless,’ while introduced by the University in 1939, built upon forty-year heirloom selections of Mr. Thomas Davis of Lancaster, South Carolina.

‘Clemson Spineless’ features velvety green pods free of spines. Harvest pods when they’re five inches or smaller (they’ll keep growing but become tough and sinewy). Eat them fresh or cooked; they’re especially tasty pickled.

Okra grows best in full sun in warm to hot conditions. Germination is best when soil temperatures are 70°F (21°C) and higher. It tolerates various soil types, preferring sandy loams with good drainage.

‘Sugar Baby’ Watermelon

A close-up reveals a 'Sugar Baby' watermelon nestled in rich, dark soil, snug within a white pot. Its diminutive size contrasts with the vibrant, deep green hue, while adjacent, the delicate stem and lush leaves complete the picturesque scene.The ‘Sugar Baby’ watermelons thrive in soil temperatures above 70°F (21°C).

Sweet, delicious, and smaller than the classic oblong watermelon, ‘Sugar Baby’ packs all the juicy flavor in a more petite form. Round have firm, dark skins and weigh up to six to ten pounds. 

Introduced in their 1958 catalog by Woodside Seed Growing Company of Rocky Ford, Colorado, ‘Sugar Baby’ was selected by amateur breeder Mr. Hardin of Oklahoma from an heirloom Japanese variety ‘Tough Sweets.’ ‘Sugar Baby’ is an improved “icebox” variety (small enough to fit in an icebox) with deep red flesh and mottled black-green skin.

In addition to its sweet flavor, the bonus of ‘Sugar Baby’ is the early maturing melons, ready about 80 days after planting. Watermelons grow best directly sown in warm soils with temperatures of 70°F (21°C) and above. Wait to sow seeds until at least one or two weeks after the final frost.  

‘Fish’ Hot Pepper

A vivid 'Fish' hot pepper plant basking in sunlight, its lush leaves shimmering under the golden rays. Bright yellow, green, and fiery red peppers dangle gracefully from the verdant foliage, promising a colorful harvest to come.Fish peppers offer ornamental value while spicing up dishes.

These showy peppers feature tricolor-striped peppers and variegated foliage. Ornamental in the garden and spicy in the kitchen, these beauties are African-American heirlooms from the late 1800s. Horace Pippin of West Chester, Pennsylvania, passed along seeds later introduced by William Woys Weaver to the Seed Savers Exchange catalog.

The fish pepper boasts a medium-hot to hot heat level for enjoying fresh and cooking, roasting, and drying. Used in oyster and crab house cooking, fish peppers have a significant foodways heritage in the Chesapeake Bay area and beyond.

Fish peppers tolerate high heat. They’re compact, bushy growers well suited to the garden bed or containers. Grow them as a piece of culinary heritage, for their ornamental value, and to spice up the vegetable selection.

‘Pineapple’ Ground Cherry

A close-up of 'Pineapple' ground cherries, featuring orange and yellow hues, with papery skin adding texture. Lush green leaves encircle the cherries, enhancing their natural appeal and providing a verdant backdrop to their bright colors.The ‘Pineapple’ ground cherry produces abundant half-inch fruits with a hint of pineapple flavor.

Try ground cherries if you want to add something unique and delicious to the vegetable garden this year. These “husk tomatoes” resemble tomatillos but have a sweet, tart flavor. They are excellent for fresh salsa, salads, and preserves (or popping bite-sized goodness right from the garden).

‘Pineapple’ ground cherries bring a hint of – you guessed it – pineapple to the abundant half-inch fruits. Ripe ground cherries drop to the ground and turn golden yellow. 

Ground cherries originate in South and Central America, where they’ve grown for centuries. They’re more adaptable to northern climates than tomatillos, and the compact plants don’t need staking or caging.

Sow seeds indoors four to six weeks before your final frost date or outdoors two to four weeks after the last frost. Ground cherries germinate best in warm soils.

‘Hearts of Gold’ Cantaloupe/Muskmelon

A close up of 'Hearts of Gold' cantaloupes resting on the ground, gently embraced by verdant leaves. The pale green fruits exhibit intricate textures, promising succulent sweetness with each bite.A cantaloupe variety called ‘Hearts of Gold’ was first cultivated in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

This popular old-timer of a melon boasts deep orange flesh and a tangy, sweet flavor and aroma to match. The round melons weigh two to three pounds and grow six inches in diameter. Skins are heavily netted, and rinds are thin for good eating.

‘Hearts of Gold’ is a late 1800s variety from seeds of Roland Morrrill out of Benton Harbor, Michigan. The cross is between ’Osage’ and ‘Nettedgem.’ In the early 1900s, Nevada hybridizer O.J. Vannoy popularized the variety, and Fallon, Nevada, continues to celebrate ‘Hearts of Gold’ and its heritage at the annual Cantaloupe Festival. Yum.

Productive fruiters, ‘Hearts of Gold’ is a good option for gardeners with short growing seasons. Start seeds indoors two to four weeks before the last frost date and move plants outdoors one to two weeks following. For longer growing seasons, the best method is to direct sow seeds one to two weeks after the final frost.

‘Luffa’ Gourd

Several green 'Luffa' gourds dangle gracefully, elongated in form. In the backdrop, a lush tapestry of foliage frames additional 'Luffa' gourds, promising abundance and verdant beauty in the garden scene.These vegetables develop into scrubbing sponges when their skins are peeled.

Have you grown your own luffa sponges before? They’re so much fun and versatile, too, with their uses as scrubbers. Before growing these, I thought luffa was some sort of sea creature. Thankfully, they’re just vining gourds. Grow these long vines on a fence or arbor (great partial shade to underplanted crops in hot summer climates) and reap the interesting rewards in late summer.

Luffa (also spelled “loofah”) produce one to two-foot-long green fruits with a densely fibrous interior. Skins are easy to peel, revealing the scrubbing sponges we’re used to. Let luffa ripen (skin will brown or yellow and pull back easily from the fibers). Peel and shake out interior seeds for use on dishes, in the bath, and gifting an all-natural spa accessory.

Luffas do well in warm soils and are best sown outdoors two to four weeks after the final frost. They’ll thrive in summer heat in full sun and tolerate light shade.

‘Black Beauty’ Zucchini

A flourishing 'Black Beauty' zucchini plant showcases deep green zucchinis, promising a bountiful harvest. Surrounding the plant, weeds sprawl, contrasting the orderly growth with their wild and unruly presence.Optimal conditions for growing ‘Black Beauty’ Zucchini include warm temperatures.

This popular summer squash has a bushy habit and a high production of dark greenish-black fruits with tender, creamy white flesh. From breeder John Scarchuk in the 1920s, ‘Black Beauty’ was an All-America Selections award winner in 1957 for its prolific early and tasty fruits on an easy-to-grow plant.

Squash thrives in warm temperatures in consistently moist, well-drained soil. To prevent diseases, avoid overhead watering on leaves and flowers.

Squash bugs and vine borers are a problem in my garden, so I grow other gourds instead of summer squash and zucchini. I envy those of you who grow summer squash without issue—how tasty!

‘California Wonder’ Bell Pepper

A close-up reveals droplets of water clinging to the surface of a green 'California Wonder' bell pepper. Adjacent to the pepper, the stem and leaves stand in crisp detail, suggesting freshness and natural beauty.Sow ‘California Wonder’ bell peppers outdoors in mild climates 2-4 weeks after the final frost.

These mild, sweet peppers are the classic bells we’re used to in the kitchen. They’re lobed with thick walls, tender flesh, and crisp flavor. The fruits start green and ripen to red; enjoy them fresh at either stage. Look for ‘Golden Cal Wonder’ for a yellow variety.

‘California Wonder’ is a 1928 introduction by Cali grower C.C. Marse. The sweet peppers originated in Central and South America and traveled the world with explorers and colonists.

In mild climates, sow bell peppers outdoors two to four weeks after the final frost. In cold climates, start seeds indoors eight to ten weeks before transplanting. 

‘Speckled Swan’ Hard-Shelled Gourd

A 'Speckled Swan' hard-shelled gourd sits gracefully on a bed of hay, its delicate curves catching the sunlight. It's joined by a gathering of pumpkins, their vibrant hues adding a splash of autumnal warmth to the scene.Gourd varieties like ‘Speckled Swan’ are versatile for both fresh arrangements and crafts.

These ornamental gourds bring late-season interest to the vegetable garden, especially fun for kids. Their dark green skin has flecks of creamy, lighter green. The gourds reach 14-16 inches with wide bases that funnel to a swan-shaped neck.

‘Speckled Swan’ is a fun addition among other gourds and fall-themed decor. They’re excellent for long-lasting fresh arrangments and for drying and craft uses.

Sow gourd seeds one to two weeks after the final frost when temperatures begin to warm. They’ll grow vigorously on a climbing support all season and can bring a little shade to hot garden areas. The adorable young goosenecks turn into full-fledged swans by season’s end.

‘Cherry Belle’ Radish

A bunch of freshly harvested purple 'Cherry Belle' radishes rest atop a rustic wooden table, their lush green leaves adding a burst of color. The arrangement showcases the earthy charm of farm-fresh produce.Radishes like ‘Cherry Belle’ can be sown in spring and fall.

‘Cherry Belle’ is a classic bright red radish with white flesh and a crisp flavor. These Holland heirlooms won the All-America Selections award in 1949 for their fast growth, easy care, and flavorful roots. ‘Cherry Belle’ salad radishes are a grower (and chef) favorite.

Sow radishes in the cool temperatures of spring and fall. They mature quickly (‘Cherry Belle’ in about 24 days) and are well-suited to successional plantings every one to two weeks for a continual crop through late spring and early summer. 

‘Cherry Belle’ radishes are frost-tolerant and best sown several weeks before the average final frost date (when soil is workable and temperatures are above 40°F or 4°C). Harvest Cherry Belle when the roots are small, about one inch in diameter.

Final Thoughts:

If you’re ready to bite into some heirloom goodness this summer, start with spring sowing and planning. Heirlooms play an essential role in our edible history and future landscapes. Preserving the best of the best in flavor and growing qualities contributes to our gardens and genetic diversity beyond.

Growing heirlooms alongside modern crops enriches the garden in ornamental value, interest, and tastiness. Like all gardening, growing heirlooms requires experimenting and trial and error to see what thrives in a specific site. That’s so much of the fun. Enjoy your garden-to-be this season and the stories it will share.

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