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Gardening and More: Learning about heirloom vegetables – Plants with a storied past

TOMATO, TOMATO — Jim Tammaro, a volunteer at the Genesee Country Village and Museum, will speak about growing heirloom vegetables at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 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; on the right are Rutgers tomatoes, which were developed in Rutgers, N.J. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko
HAMBURG — Plants need three things to be called heirlooms, according to Jim Tammaro, a volunteer at the Genesee Country Village and Museum.

Tammaro will speak about growing heirloom vegetables, during the Fall Festival and Agricultural Fair at the museum, located at 1410 Flint Hill Road in Mumford. The event will be held from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5 and 6; Tammaro will speak at 1 p.m. on both days.

Heirloom plants must be open pollinated varieties, not hybrids, according to 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 might 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 that 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 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.”

According to folklore, one plant that Tammaro grows, the Lutz long keeper beet, can be traced back to the Pilgrims. These people did not need a beet that was the tastiest, Tammaro said, but they wanted a vegetable that was large and would store well, so they had something that would last through to February. 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 is sweeter than other tomatoes. Kellogg’s breakfast tomato, another yellow variety that is like a beefsteak tomato, was not named for the cereal company, but for a 19th century botanist that started a number of varieties of tomatoes.

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 said that this was because he does not use tomato cages, which are too small for these large plants. Instead, he built a trellis that not only provides the proper support, but allows for better air flow. He ties the branches of the tomatoes to the trellis with rags and attached the trellis to the fence for extra support.

In addition to the talks about heirloom vegetables, the Fall Festival at the Genesee Country Village and Museum will include displays and judging of heirloom vegetables. It will also include competitions in 150 categories, including livestock, baked goods, needlecrafts, broom making and largest pumpkin. Take in a 19th century magic display, attend a Punch & Judy puppet show and enjoy other entertainment.

For more information about the event, visit

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

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