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.
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.
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
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
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?