Heirloom Seeds: What They Are and Why I Think You Should Grow Them

Written by contributor Stephanie Langford, of Keeper of the Home.

Purple Gypsy Tomatoes, Yellow Lemon Cucumbers, Dragon Tongue Bush Beans, Atomic Red Carrots, and Patisson Blanc et Vert Scallop Squash… these are a few of the many reasons that heirloom seeds have a starring role in my garden.

It’s not just the vibrant colors and the exotic names that make me swoon (although they do). Heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties have grown enormously in popularity with home and market gardeners alike in recent years, especially with the rise in awareness of organic growing methods, concerns with GMO seeds, economic struggles, the desire save seeds from year to year, as well as simply for taste and sheer pleasure.

What are Heirloom Seeds?

Also know sometimes as Heritage Seeds, they are generally 50 years old and many are 100 years or older. Certainly they have all been saved and passed down from generation to generation, usually within a family or a community.

By definition, they are open-pollinated seeds:

The pollen from one plant is carried to the next by the wind, by insects, and sometimes even by birds. Some heirloom plants are even self-pollinating! When the home gardener saves these seeds, the next generation of plants will look, smell, and taste like their parents. (source)

What is the alternative to open-pollinated seeds? Hybrid seeds, or F1 varieties as they are also known, have been hand-pollinated by specifically chosen seeds or parent plants.

They tend to be very productive and vigorous (a plus, to be sure), but they can be patented by a company, and they are also usually sterile and cannot be saved to be used again or passed along. If a plant does grow from saved hybrid seeds the following season, the results will be unpredictable and likely not productive or hardy. These make growers dependent on the seed suppliers, as they must purchase new seed each year.

I do think it’s important to note that a hybrid seed is not the same as a genetically-modified seed. GMO’s are taking the concept of cultivating hybrids a step further by actually splicing a gene into the plant’s DNA. There are many potential health concerns and simply unknown factors of using and consuming GMO foods, although I wouldn’t say the same about hybrid seeds. Though they lack many of the benefits of an heirloom, they are not (in my opinion) dangerous for us to consume in any way.

Photo by portmanteous

Why Grow Heirloom Seeds?


How many tomato varieties do you know of? 5? Maybe 10? How about 263? That’s the number I quickly counted off on my favorite heirloom seed site, and that isn’t even close to every variety that exists. They come in the typical red, of course, but also pink, purple (also called black), white, yellow, orange, green and striped.

Leafing through heirloom seed catalogues make me absolutely giddy with excitement. There are more unique, exotic, bizarre, beautiful and quirky varieties than I ever knew existed.


This is probably hands down the biggest reason that most gardeners grow heirlooms… they simply taste incredible. I have been ruined for almost anything else and every time I break down and buy a conventional tomato or green bean, I’m disappointed.

The flavors of heirlooms are truly unmatched. Tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and all that is meant to be juicy or crisp or mouth-wateringly sweet have been bred purely for taste, for market appeal, for gardeners who walk out their backdoor for that evening’s fresh produce, unlike their forlorn hybrid counterparts, developed mainly for productivity, ease of transport and shelf life.

Specific Characteristics

When seeds are passed faithfully from generation to generation, you can bet there’s a good reason why. If that seed didn’t produce plentifully, taste magnificently, or withstand adversity, why would anyone pass it on?

Heirloom seeds are usually quite regional, and become favored for their ability to grow well in a particular climate and because they are resistant to troublesome local pests and disease. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and I have learned to select seeds that do well in cool and moist climates, in short growing seasons, and that withstand common local garden ailments such as powdery mildew and late blight. If you live in Georgia (for example), you could select varieties that do well in extreme heat and humidity, possible drought, and that grow well in longer seasons.

Photo by kthread


Though a packet of $2.50 seeds appears inexpensive at first glance, the cost adds up quickly once you buy all of the different crops you wish to grow and enough for a decent sized garden and possible succession (multiple) plantings. Being able to save your own seed for the following year cuts garden expenses dramatically, making gardening an even more frugal option.


It’s a common rallying cry these days, as we all seek to live more mindfully and sustainably. Although there is nothing wrong at all with supporting excellent seed companies that are growing and distributing quality seeds for growers, many people desire to be even more self-sustaining than that. If that is something you value, heirloom seeds might be a perfect fit for you.

Protecting Biodiversity

As hybridization of seeds came into popularity in the years after World War II, many plant varieties began to disappear in the agricultural revolution that was taking place. Seed varieties began to be selected and developed for mass production and transportation, and regional heirlooms simply didn’t make the cut.

Using and saving heritage seeds helps to protect the vast biodiversity of plant life that exists all over the world. If we stop using them, they’ll disappear and we lose another piece of history, of culture, and simply of the amazingly varied creation that exists. Additionally, greater seed variety helps to protect growers from devastation of crops of a single variety (such as what happened in the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s).

Photo by Todd Allison

Better Nutrition

This is a more debated aspect of heirlooms, but it bears mentioning at least. Modernized produce is showing lower nutrient content, which is thought to be primarily because of industrial farming methods like mono-cropping and the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers which strip the soil over time, rather than using organic methods that enrich the soil and increase nutrient content.

It is thought that hybridization of seeds is reducing vitamins and minerals because of the focus on breeding for high yields and uniformity, rather than on nutrient content.

Buying and Selecting Heirlooms

Aside from the fact that it’s just so darn hard to choose from such a tempting array of seeds (glossy seed catalogues are far more dangerous than shoe stores, in my opinion), the main things to be aware of as you make your seed choices are to consider what will grow best in your particular local region.

Those Barnes Mountain Pink tomatoes may sound so good, but if you live in Seattle and have a short growing season (think 55-80 days), you may want to rethink choosing something with 95 days to maturity.

Photo by lizadaly

Where to Buy Heirlooms

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Victory Seeds

Heirloom Seeds

Seed Savers

Seeds of Change

Territorial Seeds (perfect for West Coast growers, but a mix of F1 and open-pollinated- look for the OP symbol or the word Heirloom)

West Coast Seeds (Canada)

Salt Spring Seeds (Canada)

Do you grow heirlooms? What are your reasons for choosing them? And which varieties do you love?

top photo source

Stephanie Langford has a passion for encouraging homemakers who want to make healthy changes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke, and (her newest!) through successful meal planning. She is the editor and author of Keeper of the Home.

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  1. A great post, as usual, Stephanie. It’s like a mini-education in Heirloom seeds! I ordered about 1/2 my seeds from Baker Creek this year after trying some from a friend last year. I *love* their beautiful catalog and can’t wait to try more of their seeds–started the onions yesterday (yay!!).

    • I love their catalog, too. I could stare at it for hours on end. 🙂

    • I found a smaller company that offers heirloom seed packs for $15.00. You get 30 varieties of vegetables. I gave some to a friend this past Summer and she grew the hybrids as well and the heirloom seeds from myseedcellar.com grew at least 1 foot and a half taller than the others. You can’t beat the deal. I ended up picking up more just to store in the freezer . I’ve been telling everyone to get a pack just because they are so inexpensive and grow beautiful plants!

  2. Love this article 🙂

    My brother, Nate, got me into heirlooms a few years ago when he gave everyone seeds for Christmas one year. Now it has become a family obsession and we all compare notes, swap seeds, pursue different varieties.

    I’ve actually got an etsy seller that I’ve been buying seeds from for about three years now, as well as some of the excellent resources that you have listed here.

    We may just have a small raised bed backyard garden, but I’m proud of what we grow there and using heirlooms just helps enrich the experience, for all the reasons you’ve listed here 🙂

    Best Wishes!

  3. Can you take the seeds from an heirloom tomato and just plant them?

    • Absolutely! They need to be properly dried and stored, but then you can use them just as you would store bought seeds the next season. I suppose you could probably even just use them fresh, if you wanted to plant a tomato immediately (is that what you meant?).

      • Yes, that’s what I did not knowing whether it would work or not. I took the seeds from an heirloom tomato I purchased at a local farm, dried the seeds, and planted them. So far, so good. They are still seedlings. Will let you know what happens…

  4. Trudy G. says:

    I purchased seeds from Baker Creek last year for my CSA and loved them! Great price and everything grew fantastic! I am already prepping my order for this year and totally get the ‘better than shoe shopping’ comment! I can look at their catlogue for hours…

  5. I’m am using heirloom seeds in my garden for the first time this year. I can’t wait to taste those tomatoes! I am hoping to save my seeds for next year’s garden, as well.

  6. I don’t…yet. This post was extremely informative and it’s got me wanting to start a garden right now! I hope we’ll be having more gardening posts as spring nears; I can’t wait to get started and try again (maybe this year my plants won’t all die…). 🙂

  7. I absolutely love the heirloom veggies that I’ve grown over the years. They are superior in taste, and so beautiful! Especially the tomatoes, oh, the tomatoes. Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, and Watermelon Beefsteak are some favorites. Thanks for the great resources!

  8. I just got me seeds in the mail last week from Baker Creek and I’m really excited to plant my first garden! (Although, now I’m kind of sad I didn’t get striped tomatoes. I was trying to go with “normal” stuff so everyone would eat it and because I was nervous about what would actually grow here in south Georgia.) I posted about my seeds and starting them indoors earlier this week on my blog. And I completely agree about the catalog–so beautiful, especially when it comes in the middle of winter. 🙂
    I would love to see a post about how to save the seeds. That is on my “list of things to research about gardening.”
    Thanks for sharing, Stephanie.

  9. Im so excited to see gardening in your blog. I LOVE Baker Creek – only 2nd year using them and I adore their catalog. The tons of varieties just gets me giddy too. I have some pepper seeds started and Im attempting to grow some indoor lettuce (read an article about it on mother earth news) and got some coming up. Mom’s indoor lettuce is doing great. Great article, totally got spring fever, thanks so much!!

  10. Please forgive my lack of knowledge on this subject. 🙂 I love the idea of using heirloom seeds but I always buy plants for my garden. Is it possible to start the seeds indoors so I could still do full plantings when the time comes?

  11. I love this post. Although this is a loaded question, but can someone Please give me advice on how to start a garden if you live in an apt? I live in Calif. I do have a balcony but am soooo nervous that I will not do things right because I don’t have a yard. I want to start now if i can get pointed in the right direction. Please help a newbie out. Thanks in advance

  12. Love this! Heirloom seeds are so critical to continued food security.

    One way to get around the sometimes-inflated cost of heirlooms is to save your own seeds. It can be fairly easy with some varieties–tomatoes especially– and is a great way to further diversify and protect your foodway.

  13. One way to get heirloom seeds for free is by ordering them from the USDA. It’s more work than ordering them from a catalog, but it’s worth it. They have some pretty rare varieties and you don’t even have to pay for postage. I ordered three heirloom tomatoes and I know someone else that order over 50 varieties, including a rare blueberry cutting.

  14. Great post! I work for Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply so I don’t just get the catalogs I help MAKE the catalogs and seed packs. Talk about hard! I ended up researching a lot of our heirloom varieties for the seed pack info and I was totally planning my garden at the time.

    My favorite heirlooms are Valencia tomatoes (from Indiana) and Suyo Long Cucumbers. The strain of Suyo cucumbers I grow was actually from a gift seed pack to my mom given to her by missionaries to Okinawa. We’ve been saving and growing them for years and they are fantastic. Burpless, never bitter, and resistant to damping off. Sorry to gush but they’re just so good.

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  16. Now this is a very unique post. Great info and thank you for providing some very useful info. If more people would plant seeds instead of just throwing them away, we might actually be able to help restore some of the damage we’re doing to our planet. We have dandelions every year here! I am going to grow some herbs, mint, lemon balm for the bugs, and I am going to try catnip.

  17. I’ve been getting heirloom tomatoes from the seeds that I ordered from the USDA. The best of the bunch was Kwand Hsi Hung Shih, a tomato of Chinese origin. I think I’ll save the seeds from this variety and plant them again next year.

  18. popcornlvr7 says:

    Bill, could you please give more info about ordering from the USDA? I browsed a little on their site but couldn’t find any info on free heirloom seeds. Thanks!

  19. The Virtual Farm Seed Co. has another good article on the differences between heirloom seed, gmo’s and hybrid seeds. They sell heirloom seed too.

  20. This is great information for anyone interested in starting a garden. I find the heirloom varieties taste much better than the hybrid stuff. Probably much better for us in the long run as well. Thanks

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