Heirloom Seed Gifts for Children and New Gardeners

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Heirloom seeds children

Want a gift that keeps on giving? Give the gift of seeds! In this post, I’m sharing my seed selections for the beginning gardeners in your life. I haven’t recommended any cultivar that hasn’t performed well in my own garden, and I’ve given special thought to those which are particularly resistant to pests, diseases, and brown thumbs. You’ll note that many of these picks also perform well in containers, making them ideal for the aspiring gardener with limited space. Although many of these selections can be found with multiple heirloom seed companies, I’ve listed my sources (which have all signed the Safe Seed Pledge) for convenience and clarity. And by the way, these vegetable varieties produce more than just a bounty of food — since they’re all heirlooms, the seeds they produce can be saved each year for replanting the following season. Seeds are gifts that can last generations!

1) Sugar Ann Peas

I’ll never forget the first time I pulled a pea fresh from the vine and ate it right there in the garden — I was sold on gardening for the rest of my life. Peas are especially great for child gardeners, as the seeds are easy for little fingers to hold. I’ve selected a variety of sugar snap pea, Sugar Ann, that is also easy for little ones to harvest, as the plants grow to only 2 feet tall. This dwarf habit makes this variety ideal for container gardens, and also suits the new gardener that is nervous about trellising plants for the first time. Pole varieties may produce more peas, but I still plant Sugar Ann because of their faster time to harvest, which is at least two weeks ahead of other varieties.

Peas should be planted early as they are a cool-weather crop, so your new gardener can get growing right away — as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. In my plant hardiness zone (6b), the local folks plant on or soon after Valentine’s Day. And don’t forget that peas can be planted again at the end of the growing season for fall harvest; I like to plant them in the space left behind after my corn is done for the season (usually in August).

Recommended seed source: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Peas do well planted in double-rows, but this is a special row for a new gardener.

Planting a special row of peas with a new gardener.

Size of Sugar Ann snap peas, in comparison to Green Arrow garden pea and Sugar Snap peas (in order from foreground to back)

Size of Sugar Ann snap peas, in comparison to Green Arrow garden pea and Sugar Snap peas (in order from foreground to back)

2) Red Meat (Watermelon) Radish

Beginning gardeners are eager to see the fruits of their labors, and radishes are one of the quickest vegetables to mature from seed — typically in only 3 to 4 weeks! There are a number of excellent varieties to choose from, but I’ve selected Red Meat for its greater resistance to pests and striking color. Also known as Watermelon Radish, Red Meat is much milder than most other varieties, making it perfect for children (or those who like the flavor of a radish without the heat). Red Meat may take a bit longer to mature (about 50 days), but it is so worth the wait!

Recommended seed source: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Watermelon radish

Watermelon radish

3) Tromboncino Squash (Zucchino Rampicante)

This squash cultivar is probably the ideal “first growing” experience for gardeners in so many ways. Also known as “vining zucchini,” young tromboncino squash grow very quickly to a length of 12-18 inches. The fruits are less stringy and more nutty in flavor than standard zucchini, and also lack seeds for most of their length (each fruit has a small bulbous end that contains the seed). Tromboncino is practically impervious to pests, disease, and harsh environmental conditions — almost indestructible. This latter characteristic may be great for new gardeners, but it also makes Zucchino Rampicante borderline-invasive (rampicante = rampant growth). It can still be great for small spaces, as it is easily trellised (which also produces straighter fruit) or grown on an arbor.

Tromboncino has so many more uses than just as a summer squash, however. Let them fully mature and grow to gargantuan size — they’ll resemble a 3 to 4 foot long butternut squash. Grown in this way, they’ll taste like butternut squash, too, for they are actually more closely related to butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata) than standard zucchini (Cucurbita pepo).

Squash like Tromboncino are also a great introduction to the science behind seed formation. The flowers are about the size of dinner plates, making it very easy to differentiate between female flowers (which have the immature fruit at their base) and male flowers (with straight stems). If you lack sufficient native pollinators like bumblebees in your area (which are essential for good pollination and fruit set), simply harvest the male flowers and dust their anthers on a female flower’s stigma.  But don’t throw the male flowers away when you’re finished; stuff them with cheese, roll them in batter, and deep fry them, as they do in Zucchino Rampicante’s country of origin — Italy.

Recommended seed source: Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company

A range of sizes of immature tromboncino. They are best picked 6 to 18 inches in length as a zucchini substitute.

A range of sizes of immature tromboncino. They are best picked 6 to 18 inches in length as a zucchini substitute.

Who doesn't love to grow monster-sized vegetables? Mature tromboncino

Who doesn’t love to grow monster-sized vegetables? Mature tromboncino

Huge female tromboncino blossoms.

Huge female tromboncino blossoms.

4) Lettuce

New gardeners can be quickly overwhelmed by the CHOICES available to them in a seed catalog. That’s really a good thing — most grocery store produce aisles don’t promote diversity, after all. In recognition of the importance of seed diversity to vegetable gardening, I’m recommending a lettuce seed mix rather than a single cultivar: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s Wild Garden Mix. Sixty varieties of lettuce seed are packed into this mixture, so at least some of them are going to be well-adapted and thrive in any garden’s unique conditions. This mix contains a stunning variety of textures, colors, and leaf shapes. Vive la différence!

Recommended seed source: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

The range of colors, patterns, and leaf shapes in Southern Exposure Seed Exchange's Wild Garden mix.

The range of colors, patterns, and leaf shapes in Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s Wild Garden mix.

5) Red Russian Kale

We may talk about “the garden season,” but there is much more to vegetable gardening than warm-season crops like tomatoes and corn. By selecting the right plants, there are no limits to producing food in the garden (find out more about winter gardening here). Red Russian Kale is a great start for new winter gardeners, as it is one of the cold-hardiest of plants, even in comparison to other kale varieties. It is also far more tender than curled varieties, and the baby leaves are fantastic in winter salads. What’s more, it is a cut-and-come-again vegetable, allowing extended harvest from just a few seeds, making it a great choice for small spaces like containers. Or use its attractive foliage in the borders of fall and winter landscaping — it will actually improve in color as temperatures drop.

Recommended seed source: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Intensification of Red Russian kale color begins with the arrival of freezing weather.

Intensification of Red Russian kale color begins with the arrival of freezing weather.

 

6) Banana Melon

Don’t you wish that melons had a  maturity indicator (like those popup thermometers they put in raw poultry?). Well, there are actually several heirloom varieties that do! Banana Melon rapidly turns from green to a brilliant yellow when it is dead-ripe, so there is no thumping, smelling, or guesswork required. And even if you couldn’t see the fruit, you’d be able to know it was ripe from a distance — it becomes very aromatic at maturity. This muskmelon was the only melon that produced for us in the summer of 2013, which was a bust for many gardeners due to an overabundance of rain. My seed source was a gift from a seed-saving friend, who in turn had procured seed from another seed saver (again, seeds are gifts that keep on giving); the original seed source is listed below.

Recommended seed source: Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company

Banana melon

Banana melon

Banana melons are made for sharing!

Banana melons are made for sharing!

 

7) Yellow Pear Tomato

How popular are tomatoes? At last check, there are 10,425 tomato listings in the online version of the popular Seed Saver’s Exchange Yearbook… that’s a LOT of tomatoes! You really can’t go wrong with any tomato variety, but I’ve selected a favorite of my little girls: Yellow Pear. Yellow Pear is always among the most productive tomatoes in my garden, as it not only produces large numbers of fruits, but is also among the first to mature in the summer season. This is a great tomato for teaching the basics of tomato staking or caging, as the fruits are so light that any cage or trellis is unlikely to fail.

Recommended seed source: Territorial Seed Company

The distinct shape of Yellow Pear contrasts nicely against other heirloom cherry tomatoes like Black Cherry and Lemon Drop.

The distinct shape of Yellow Pear contrasts nicely against other heirloom cherry tomatoes like Black Cherry and Lemon Drop.

Little Bo Peep uses the end of the tomato as a handle for eating in the garden.

Little Bo Peep uses the end of the tomato as a handle for eating in the garden.

8) Arikara sunflower

Some people prefer large, single-headed sunflowers, while others would rather have multiple-headed types. Give the gift of Arikara sunflowers, and you’ll have all of your bases covered, as plantings produce a mix of both types. This is in large part due to the genetic diversity that has been maintained in this selection; it was cultivated for centuries by the Arikara — Native Americans who lived in villages along the Missouri River in South and North Dakota. This variety produces an excellent sunflower seed that is full and rich in flavor. This is an incredibly strong-stemmed and hardy variety, so you don’t have to worry about losing those precious seeds to the ground or disease, either.

Recommended seed source: Seed Savers Exchange

A mix of the small-headed and large-headed forms of Arikara sunflower.

A mix of the small-headed and large-headed forms of Arikara sunflower.

Arikara sunflowers in the light of this summer's blue moon. Look closely and you can see bumblebees sleeping on the blooms.

Arikara sunflowers in the light of this summer’s blue moon. Look closely and you can see bumblebees sleeping on the blooms.

9) Six-Week Pinkeye Purplehull Cowpea

If you are looking for a “no-fail” guarantee in the garden, look no farther than cowpeas, known affectionately in the South as field peas. I’ve planted many varieties of cowpeas in the past two years, and I’ve been amazed by how resilient they are to pests, diseases, drought, clumsy toddler feet, and even a mischievous groundhog. But there is more to appreciate about cowpeas than just resilience — these are excellent beans! Unfortunately, all that most Americans know about cowpeas is from one variety, the California Black-Eyed Pea, which is far inferior to other cowpea varieties (my apologies if you like black-eyed peas, but you can learn more about the distinction here).

Although most cowpea varieties ramble (up to 15 feet!), I’ve chosen Six-Week Pinkeye Purplehull for its bush-like habit. Shell the beans and eat fresh when the pods fill and turn purple, or allow them to dry on the vine and store for winter soups.

Recommended seed source: Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company

Beautiful 6-week Pinkeye Purplehull flowers and foliage.

Beautiful 6-week Pinkeye Purplehull flowers and foliage.

Freshly-shelled Six-Week Pinkeye Purplehulls

Freshly-shelled Six-Week Pinkeye Purplehulls

10) Seeds from your family or community

If you have a family or local heirloom, share it! Locally-grown seeds are usually well-adapted to a community’s unique growing conditions, so you’ll be setting up a new gardener for success if you give your own seeds as gifts. Seed saving from tomatoes and beans, which have a low potential for cross-pollination, is easy for beginning gardeners to learn, so you’ll also be teaching them a valuable skill. Don’t have a family heirloom to pass on? Choose from among the many offerings at the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, which has one of the most diverse collections of bean seeds around — you just might discover a bean like your grandparents used to grow!

Heirloom beans

 

For more resources about seed saving, check out the fantastic educational materials  and webinars at Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization that preserves heirloom plant varieties.

 

Recommended heirloom seed sources:

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center

Seed Savers Exchange

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Territorial Seed Company

Osborne Seed Company

Sample Seed Shop

Sustainable Seed Company

Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply

Fedco

Sandhill Preservation Center

 

Do you have a favorite heirloom that you think is great for children or new gardeners? Tell us about it in the comments!

 

14 Comments

  1. Vetsy

    December 17, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Great Job! Thanks for sharing. Heirloom are certainly the best way to go! By the way the Kids are the cutest!

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 17, 2013 at 9:08 pm

      Thank you, Vetsy!

  2. David Cooke

    December 18, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Outstanding post. Variety selection is undervalued by many gardeners. Too many household gardeners are content to grow whatever is available at the local garden center or box store. Yield, disease and insect resistance, and taste vary greatly among varieties which may appear to be almost identical. This attention to detail is especially important for small-plot and/or organic gardeners.

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 18, 2013 at 11:13 am

      Thank you, David. I have seen exactly what you describe about disease and insect resistance varying greatly in a single variety. The Tromboncino that I received from Baker Creek is “indestructible,” but I have since ordered it from 2 other companies and they are not as hardy — one even has silvering to the foliage that is not present in the Tromboncino from the others. After that experience, I now sometimes order from at least two different companies when I want to try a variety, just so that I can select the superior form. I will be sharing those experiences in a future blog post.

  3. Texan

    December 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Enjoyed seeing your harvest. Started last night looking at a few of those seed sites you listed, some I buy from but some were totally new to me! Always fun to comb over a new seed supplier site and look for something new to try! Thanks for listing the sites.

    • Ma Hubbard

      December 19, 2013 at 10:03 am

      You’re welcome. I love discovering new seed sources, too!

  4. Laura

    February 18, 2014 at 2:08 am

    Thank you for posting the seed links. I was able to find little greasies. I have been looking for over a year for those. My grandparents lived in Clay County,Ky, and I remember eating home canned green beans with an amazing flavor to them.

    • Ma Hubbard

      February 18, 2014 at 9:30 am

      You are most welcome! Enjoy!

  5. littlesproutslearning

    November 11, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    wow, great list. Thanks!

  6. Andrea

    November 27, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    I LOVE this! Thank you for the list of heirloom seed companies, too…some new ones I have not heard of but will try to buy from soon. 🙂

  7. Heera

    December 25, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    I loved seeing your harvest! Your daughters are so cute and previous!
    heera

  8. Heera

    December 25, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    I loved seeing your harvest ! Your daughters are so cute and precious!

    • Cathy

      December 31, 2014 at 8:00 pm

      Thank you!

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