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Compromise on heirlooms sprouts guilt

I'm having a compound case of heirloom guilt.

It has nothing to do with personal possessions. I'm sure the kids will be thrilled to inherit my collections of sterling cocktail forks, 1950s dinnerware and Occupied Japan figural egg cups when the time comes.

But in my backyard kitchen garden, I haven't followed through on my intention of growing only heirloom vegetables and flowers. First I weakened in choosing marigolds to line the path. Older varieties tend to be tall and sprawling. I feared they would look shaggy.

So I got a flat of Hero hybrids at Soil Service nursery; the plants are compact with loads of bi-colored blooms, reddish orange on the outside and gold inside. They look great, but I have a tinge of guilt that they aren't historical, like the sweet peas.

Each year I plant about a dozen old varieties of sweet peas. Unlike their perennial cousins with the bubblegum pink blossoms, annual sweet peas are wonderfully fragrant and come in many colors.

This year, for the first time, I'm keeping a garden journal _ a practice I've always eschewed as being old-ladyish _ to note which ones do better than others. Cupani's original, more than 300 years old with deep purple and magenta blooms, is thriving, but Lady Grisel Hamilton apparently does not find her bed agreeable.

My heirloom Rattlesnake beans are a mixed success. With no bunnies getting past the wire mesh that lines the fence, the vines are thriving. But I feel guilty about not being a good steward of the seeds. I pick all the beans for eating until a hard frost kills the vines, rather than leaving some pods to mature and collecting the seeds.

The reason for this laziness is simple: Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, sells the seeds on its Web site, seedsavers.org, for $2.75 for a packet of 50. It just isn't worth $2.75 to me to mess around with drying the pods, collecting the seeds and trying to store them all winter without forgetting where I put them. Besides, I figure my repeat business helps the exchange stay in business.

Where I've really fallen down is with the tomatoes. In years past I've planted Brandywine, Hungarian Heart, Cherokee Purple and Nebraska Wedding plants. In my experience, these old varieties produce huge, rangy plants that take over the garden, succumb to disease and produce maybe four or five delicious tomatoes per plant.

This year I wanted tomatoes with as many consonants as possible on the label. "VFFNT" tells me my sturdy Celebrity is resistant to at least five common tomato diseases. Its leaves are unblemished, and the vines are loaded with yellow flowers. I also got a Beefmaster and a Patio cherry tomato that boast disease-resistance and high yields rather than exotic names and interesting stories.

I justify the absence of heirloom tomatoes in my garden by supporting them in other local growers' farms: At farmers markets each week I load up on my beloved Brandywines and other old-fashioned tomatoes. Even though they require more care, their taste is truly beyond compare.

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