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Heirloom Garden Plants

Some of our most vivid childhood memories come from our grandparents’ gardens, where hours were spent lost in imagination and outdoor play. The smell of sweet peas or the sight of wisteria thrown over an arbor, or lily-of-the-valley and an old climbing rose clutching a pipe trellis where stories were told and imaginary worlds came to life.

The plants in those gardens were not the exotic cultivars of today. Most heirloom plants were chosen because they were both lovely and rugged. Grandma was too busy canning and cooking and washing and ironing to dally in the garden, and water might have been a commodity too scarce or difficult to transport — a waste for pampering plants!

Heirloom gardening became the rage in the early 1900s and we’ve returned to it today. Then, the practice of growing garden beds crammed with mixtures of perennials, annuals vines and shrubs became a sort of rebellion against the strict formality of Victorian society. And even then, people were beginning to yearn for bygone days of preindustrial life. Today these wild combinations not only take us back in time but fit our modern lifestyles with their carefree growing habits.

Some things to keep in mind when recreating an old-fashioned garden are the structural elements seen in old-time designs. Some had a trellis, many had an arbor and all had some sort of fence or hedge to enclose the yard. A bench or glider might have been a focal point in your grandma’s garden or even an old swing.

Simple branches and twigs provided inexpensive materials for bean teepees and tomato stakes, with white cotton cloth rags, stripped into ties for holding veggies in place. Flowers usually fit into the vegetable garden scheme somewhere, just to keep things nice looking.

Raw poles pruned from trees might even be formed into lattice for vertical use against a wall or used horizontally when placed atop posts to create an openwork ceiling for vines to grow across. The possibilities are endless.

For more information on historic gardening and heirloom plants, click the Smithsonian link below. Vinland Valley Nursery offers many heirlooms for today’s gardener, including ornamentals and edibles.

Click here for more about heirloom gardening at Smithsonian Heirloom Garden at the National Museum of American History, Behring Center.

Here are some of our favorites from my grandparent’s garden:

marigold

Tagetes hybrids

'Bonanza' mix is a French marigold with a mix of yellow, gold-red, and bicolor large, 2-2.5" crested blooms on dense, uniform 10-12" plants. Native to the Americas, marigolds require very little care and maintenance and are quick to flower, which is why they've been a garden favorite for generations. 'Durango' mix is a uniform, extra-large, double flowering cultivar on bushy, vigorous, dark green, 10" to 12" plants. Festive, red-tipped yellow bolero accents deep red, tangerine and yellow blooms. Plant in sunny beds, containers and window boxes!

old-fashioned tobacco

Nicotiana sylvestris

Tall, old-fasioned nicotiana features 3-4′ tall stalks topped with many trumpet-shaped, fragrant white blooms throughout summer. Large, green foliage is sticky and usually avoided by deer and rabbits. This heirloom plant is easy to grow and maintain, and makes a dramatic addition to any garden bed.

peony

Paeonia lactiflora

Old favorites for late spring display, prized for their large, colorful, fragrant blooms. Plants form an upright clump of dark green leaves that tend to fade in early summer, so plant behind another perennial or shrub to give some cover. Flowers make great arrangements. Peonies add nostalgia to the sunny border. Flowering is always best in a sunny location. 'Kansas' is an award winning variety with large, fully double, dark reddish-pink flowers. 'Festival Maxima' provides huge, double, pure white blooms. 'Sorbet' blooms consist of many layers of large, ice-pink petals and smaller, cream petals with a yellow center.

sweet William

Phlox divaricata

Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’ grows clusters of blue and violet five-petal stars in early spring are sweetly scented. This woodland edge native naturalizes easily, and provides an early nectar source for hungry hummingbirds and bees! Grows to 1′ tall. NATIVE TO THE EASTERN HALF OF THE U.S.

rhubarb ‘Crimson’

Rheum x hybridum

Produces multitudes of red-blushed green stalks and is the best cooking rhubarb. Sweeter and milder than other cultivars, the stalks are slender and tender.

old-fashioned spirea

Spiraea × vanhouttei

Old-fashioned spirea is often found in established landscapes around older homes. This handsome arching, loose shrub reaches 4 to 8 feet high and 6 to 8 feet wide. Showy, single white flower clusters open in bunches of 3 to 6 in mid-spring. The finely serrated small leaves turn a yellow to bronzy-purple in the fall. These shrubs make excellent hedges, foundation plantings, borders, and woodland margins as well as flowering specimen, accent plants.

‘Powell’s Purple’ wisteria

Wisteria frutescens ‘Powell’s Purple’

Blooms in early summer and then reblooms later in the season. Give it the sturdy support of an arbor, pergola or wall. Needs no pruning to bloom and flowers best in full sun. Grown from seed collected at Powell Gardens (with permission!) NATIVE TO THE EASTERN HALF OF THE U.S.

lily-of-the-valley

Convallaria majalis ‘Prolificans’

Thrives in dry shade in poor soil. Excellent heirloom groundcover with dark green foliage spikes topped in spring with small, fragrant, white nodding bells along stems throughout. This cultivar is so floriferous that at first glance it appears to have double blooms!

Tennessee Cheese pepper

Capsicum annuum species

Originally from Spain, where it is still used as a staple in many dishes. Fruits are perfect for stuffing. Round, apple or tomato-shaped, with a flattened base and a thick, delicious skin. Can also be used fresh like a bell, pickled, canned, or dried for paprika!

Amish Paste

Solanum lycopersicum

Turn of the century heirloom for sauces and canning. Deep red 8 oz fruits with excellent flavor, low acidity.

Brandywine

Solanum lycopersicum

Dates back to 1885 and considered to be the world’s best tomato. Extra-large fruit up to 1 1/2 lbs. Indeterminate.

lily-of-the-valley

Convallaria majalis ‘Prolificans’

Thrives in dry shade in poor soil. Excellent heirloom groundcover with dark green foliage spikes topped in spring with small, fragrant, white nodding bells along stems throughout. This cultivar is so floriferous that at first glance it appears to have double blooms!

old-fashioned bleeding heart

Dicentra spectabilis

An heirloom garden favorite, bleeding heart has ferny green foliage and 1" rose pink heart-shaped flowers with little tear-drops of white for several weeks in spring. Plants can form clumps 3 feet across and almost as tall. Foliage generally goes dormant in summer, so this perennial is best planted behind other plants that will take it's place after its spring show. A wonderful woodland garden perennial with hostas and ferns but tolerates full sun in moist soil. 'Gold Heart' offers the same great habit and characteristics of old-fashioned with bright chartreuse foliage.

‘Strawberries and Cream’ ribbon grass

Phalaris arundinacea 'Strawberries and Cream'

18" colorfully tricolored leaves are variegated with white, green and pink. This grass spreads aggressively, which makes it an excellent choice for confined areas where a groundcover is needed.

grapes

Vitis spp.

‘Niagara Seedless’ is an excellent variety for regions with short growing seasons. Light green, turning pale yellow to whitish when ripe. Long, tapering clusters of large berries. Useful for desserts, juice and wine. ‘Catawba’ produces large, pink, seedless berries on vigorous, hardy vine. Fruit useful for fresh eating, but also used in the production of pink and rose wines. Over 100 years old, ‘Catawba’ produces a medium-bodied, sweet, fragrant wine with a strawberry-like flavor. A good choice for colder regions with short growing seasons. ‘Mars’ is a vigorous, blue seedless grape. Clusters are medium sized, and vines are resistant to several major diseases. Foliage is late to leaf out, avoiding damage in frost-prone areas. Vines may bear fruit precociously, and production should be controlled on young vines to promote strong establishment. ‘Fredonia’ produces large clusters of blue-black medium to large berries ripen early and keep well. This V. labrusca is a standard juice and dessert variety. ‘Reliance’ produces large clusters of red, medium-sized seedless berries. Tender skins and melting flesh with a sweet flavor. Cold hardiness is among the highest of the seedless varieties. ‘Concord Seedless’ yields plump grapes with deep purple color and lots of juice. A single vine yields 30-40 fruit clusters. ‘Jupiter’ produces abundant, beautiful clusters of succulent seedless grapes that are good table grapes. As the grapes ripen in early midseason, their reddish-blue color ripens to deep blue. Good disease resistance.

Iris ‘Buckwheat’

Iris germanica

Yellow fades to white at the center of standards surrounded by yellow falls. An early variety that reblooms. 31" tall. German bearded iris are heirloom plants as tolerant and adaptable as they come. Spikey blue-green foliage makes an attractive show across three seasons, and spring blooms are a harbinger of the summer season to come. Break off seedpods that form after blooms have faded and prune back foliage in fall if desired. Some varieties rebloom in fall, and flowers bloom in a variety of striking colors! Plants can be divided every few years.