The Myth of Cheap Garden Hauls + Heirloom Favorites

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If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I’ll just grow my own, it’s cheaper!” I would have at least one large piggy bank full of nickels. I’ve heard it about fruits and vegetables, pigs, cows, sheep… basically, if it comes from a farm people seem to think they can do it better and cheaper themselves. And in certain cases, they’re right–or at least not wrong. A couple dozen square feet of raised beds or a handful of pots on your porch don’t require much tending and the super-containment reduces the risk of failure, at least at first.

Even with animals, breeding one or two of your own can work… until it doesn’t. The problem, as with gardens, is that when the plan fails it usually does so in epic fashion. More importantly though, you can’t predict when that failure will come about and the smaller your operation the more acutely the failure can be felt. It’s the old, “all your eggs in one basket” issue. When you’re breeding just a few animals or growing just a tiny garden you have a lot more riding on each plant or animal.

Of course, there’s also the issue of actual inputs and the DIY route doesn’t pencil out in at least as many cases as it does–and I’d contend many more–but most people either just don’t know or don’t care what it actually takes to bring into this world a ripe tomato or a feeder pig or a frolicky calf.

There are the obvious things: seeds and fertilizer, feed and shelter. But there are also many less obvious: electricity and labor and the cost of failures, to name a few. The average farmworker on a fruit or vegetable farm makes about nine dollars per hour, on a livestock farm or ranch that figure grows to about ten and a half. While it’s not much, it’s enough to add up quickly. Which is why even small farms can rarely compete with the economies of scale and, frankly, the skill of the employees at large farms.

It’s something I always mull over at this time of year as I make plans for our growing season. There’s no such thing as a cheap haul from a small farm or market garden. There never has been and there never will be so I’m always looking to make sure I have another justification for my planting plans–and hopefully a valid one at that. For me that justification is usually food quality-based so I thought I’d share a list of some of my favorite fruit and veggie varieties. I’ve published garden lists before, but I’ve always–as far as I can remember–included everything in them, both old favorites and new varieties I was trying that year. This isn’t one of those lists. This is exclusively the tried and true; the types of seeds I’d want to take into an apocalyptic world with me; the ones I know won’t sacrifice taste for quantity or vice versa–space is a premium after all.

San Marzano Redorta. Many people will tell you that San Marzano tomatoes are the gold standard for paste and canning tomatoes, and I won’t argue with them. However classic San Marzanos–like their basic roma and Amish Paste cousins–are way too small for any self-respecting home canner. No one has time to skin twenty-three tomatoes per quart. In my garden, the Redorta varieties always grow tomatoes three to four times the size of their classic cousins and still deliver all that San Marzano flavor.

Black Krim. Hands down the best tasting tomato in our garden. Some people like to say Cherokee Purple is just as good. These people are liars.

Riesentraube. I got a free packet of these with a seed order I placed years ago. I haven’t purchased any other variety of red cherry type tomatoes since then. These elevated my standards and nothing else measures up.

Dragon Tongue Beans. These can be grown for either snap or dried beans. I can’t tell you anything about the latter though, because they never make it that long in our garden. As snaps they’re juicy and flavorful and they keep on producing for a few degrees past when our favorite green beans drop their blossoms during hot summers.

Blue Hubbard. My poor Mother almost started crying when I told her I love these squash. Apparently it runs in the family and it made her miss my Great Aunt. These are huge and cutting them open can be unwieldy, but it’s worth it.

Sweet Dumpling. Sweet is in the name for a reason. These little nutrition-packed squashes seem like a treat. My kids cook them in the microwave for an easy after school snack. They’re the perfect size for one or two hungry kids (or adults.)

Buttercrunch Lettuce. These little heads of lettuce are adorable and delicious all at once and they grow well here seemingly regardless of the weather–which is important in a state where it seems to change drastically by the minute.

Bull’s Blood Beets. I’m a woman who loves her pickled beets and these are the easiest and most prolific beets I’ve ever tried growing. They never fail me.

Cinderella Pumpkins / Rouge Vif D’Etampes. I won’t lie, while these are edible, my main attraction to them is how beautiful they are for fall decor.

And I think that’ll do it for me. I tend to grow hybrids for our cucumbers, peppers and corn. Do you have heirloom favorites you plant every year? I’d love to see your lists in the comments!

*Heirloom is largely a marketing term that is generally considered synonymous with the more official term ‘open pollinated’. Read more on the difference between heirlooms, hybrids and GMO’s here.

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