January is often a time of reflection for me as I ponder the experiences of the prior year and make plans for the season to come. As the seed catalogues start filling my mailbox, I can’t help but spend some time going through my garden journal from the prior season, reflecting on the successes and failures. During this time, I find myself smiling as I recall all the wonderful advice and support gifted to me by those more experienced than me, leading me to contemplate word heirloom and what it truly means.
According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, an heirloom is “a piece of property that descends to the heir as an inseparable part of an inheritance of real property; or something of special value handed down from one generation to another;” or in the case of gardening, “a variety of plant that has originated under cultivation and that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals,” for example, “heirloom tomatoes.”
Yes, we all know the textbook definition of heirloom; however, I believe it runs deeper than this. In my opinion, non-tangible things such as the knowledge, guidance, experiences, stories, and advice passed down from one generation to the next also has “special value” and often is the result of the efforts of “several generations.” Just like the plant varieties, heirlooms of this variety are priceless. Without it, I would not be where I am with respect to gardening.
Though I am still a novice with respect to my experience with heirloom gardening, I am very proud of one particular plant that was passed onto me by a very special person. She was instrumental in helping me get started with my garden in the early years. I fondly recall spending an entire afternoon at her home, sorting through all her seedlings, in awe as to how many different varieties she grew — all of which she started from seed, many of which were heirlooms. While she was so generous with the fruits of her labor, there was one particular gift that remains to be my most cherished crop: garlic.
As she handed over the head of garlic to me, she casually mentioned that it had been in her family for multiple generations, its early beginnings rooting back all the way to the rural countryside of Italy before making its way overseas to the United States. Each year, she tended to and cultivated a beautiful crop of garlic to share with her family and friends, often in the form of her fantastic Italian cooking, and I was lucky enough to be given a head of garlic to begin my own crop.
My first year turned out okay — out of the 12 cloves I planted, a few of them never produced a plant, a few were damaged in the harvesting process, and the remaining were harvested without injury. (Having never harvested garlic before, it took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong … but that is a story for another time.) I decided to save two heads to plant for the next season, and was blessed with 15 beautiful heads of garlic. Now, several years later, I am happily digging up 30 or more heads of garlic that I too can happily share with friends and family, not only in my cooking, but also as a gift for them to add to their own gardens.
I am beyond grateful for the stories of successes and failures, tricks and tips, knowledge and experiences, and most especially the family heirloom plants that have been passed down to me over the years. Sure, I can find valuable information through researching the Internet, read all the “how-to” books, and purchase viable plants from the local greenhouse. However, I can’t put a price on the gift of advice, acquired through the hard work and efforts of our ancestors, and passed down from generation to generation.