By E. VinjeTweet
Why Heirloom Seed?
Imagine growing the same fruits and vegetables as Thomas Jefferson or Luther Burbank. Imagine your garden filled with bright colors, odd shapes and a variety of foods that could inspire even the most jaded vegetable-hater to take a bite. Heirloom seed produces fruits, vegetables and flowers that have been passed down for generations for their good taste, vibrant colors, pest resistance and other beneficial traits.
Today there is a trend toward locally grown and organic foods. At the same time as mega-corporations are producing genetically altered, dyed, bland foods that are often covered in pesticides, many people are starting to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Not only is home grown food likely to be safer and healthier than commercially produced fruits and vegetables, it tastes better, too!
What are heirloom plants?
Before the industrial revolution and the advent of commercial agriculture, a wide variety of plants were grown. The seeds of these plants were saved, traded with neighbors and passed down from generation to generation.
Industrialized agriculture required that plants be consistent in size, shape and color; able to withstand mechanical picking and shipping; have the ability to tolerate drought and garden chemicals; and ripen at the same time to ease in selling. Using seeds that consistently met these requirements narrowed the range of plants grown. Industrialized agriculture uses just a few types of seeds, which is why there is a limited variety of fruits and vegetables found in the grocery store when there are many, many more varieties that could be grown.
There is no agreed upon definition for what makes a plant an heirloom, but generally, if it was grown before 1951, was passed down from generation to generation, breeds true (is not a hybrid) and is not grown commercially — it’s probably an heirloom.
For more on what makes an heirloom and heirloom, click here.
Heirloom vs. hybrid
Around 1951, hybrid plants hit the market. A hybrid is a genetic combination of two plants — each chosen for a specific trait. For example, a tomato with good color might be bred with a tomato that tastes good. The seeds of this hybrid will not produce the same plant as it came from. You might get a good colored-bland tasting tomato or a pale-colored yummy tomato, or something else entirely.
Heirloom garden seeds are open-pollinated. Basically, wind, insects and nature does the pollinating and the seeds from these plants will produce plants that are like their parent plants. They are said to “breed true.”
Why grow heirlooms?
There are many reasons to grow heirloom plants. Some gardeners have an interest in history and want to recreate gardens of the past. Others enjoy the variety of taste and textures that heirloom plants provide. Maintaining the gene pool of fruits, vegetables and flowers is motivation for others. For some, traditional, organic gardens are important — and some people just think it’s fun.
Growing and saving seed lends a sense of history and cultural heritage to gardening. When you grow heirloom plants and save the seeds, you participate in saving many varieties from extinction and preserving plants with special genetic traits. Additionally, you can pass on the rich history that many plants are part of. Gardeners can use heirloom seeds to recreate sections of the gardens at Jefferson’s Monticello or grow the same vegetables raised in World War II victory gardens. You can even grow the same crops planted by homesteaders and sod busters long, long ago.
Today there is a lot of concern about the safety of our food supply. Even organically (and commercially) grown food has made people sick. Growing heirloom vegetable seeds ensures you know where your food came from and that it is not genetically modified or coated in chemicals (if you grow organically). You’ll also be self-reliant. As heirloom seeds were passed down through the generations they adapted to specific climates, insects and diseases, so they require less garden care to flourish.
How to find heirloom seeds
There are many online resources for finding heirloom seeds, and ordering a few provocative seed packets can make any gardener’s heart race.
After growing a few heirloom varieties and deciding which ones you like the best, save the seeds to grow again next year. Seed exchanges are popping up all over the country and provide a great resource for trading seeds and trying out different heirloom plants.
There are so many heirloom varieties available that it can be hard to know where to start. Here are a few flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits that are easy to grow. Once you get initiated into the fun, colorful world of heirlooms, you’ll want to try others.
Bells of Ireland were originally grown in the Mediterranean and are easy to grow just about anywhere. The tall (18-36′) green spikes add texture and interest to the garden or the vase.
English Lavender is almost a required plant for heirloom gardeners. Its aroma is amazing and the gray-green foliage dresses up the flowerbed.
Note: Heirloom flowers — the ones that Grandma used to grow — add charm to your garden while stirring memories with their arousing scents.
Purple Dark Opal Basil looks stunning in a salad or as a garnish, and the dark red stems and lilac flowers decorate the garden. It tastes delicious, too.
Grandma Einck’s Dill has been grown near Festina, Iowa since 1920 by the Einck family. This fragrant flower adds a punch to most meals.
Cylindra Beets look more like carrots than beets, but their funky shape belies the beety taste. Because they grow down, rather than out, they are perfect for those without a lot of space.
Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard is a rainbow in the garden. Packed full of nutrients and calcium, this Swiss chard keeps you healthy, too.
Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry harkens back to 1837 Pennsylvania. These little cherries make delicious jams and pies. They are tasty fresh, too, and the plant is quite prolific.
Sudduth’s Strain Brandywine Tomato was obtained by Ben Quisenberry in 1980 from Dorris Sudduth Hill whose family grew them for 80 years. These intensely flavored fruits can get up to 2 pounds.