March 6, 2020

heirloom seeds

What are they and why do we love them?

Shannie McCabe
March 6, 2020

A STUDY IN THE BEAUTY OF IMPERFECTION, the gnarled, juicy and delicious heirloom tomato is a virtually unrecognizable brother to the smooth, tasteless red globes found in the grocery store. Heirloom vegetables are not prized for shipping quality and supermarket stability — they are ephemeral yet unforgettable, and remarkable in flavor. 

But what, exactly, is an heirloom vegetable, and how does it come to be? Heirloom varieties are open pollinated — meaning that when the plant produces seeds, they can be saved to grow the following year, and the resulting plants will look just like their parents. Most heirloom varieties have been grown and passed down for at least 50 years, but there are open-pollinated varieties being selected today which could also be considered heirloom.

Open-pollinated breeding can be achieved either by nature (wind or pollinating insects) or hand-pollination and selection. Breeding a hybrid requires more careful attention: hybrids are created when a breeder manually crosses parent plants, excluding all other pollen. The result is a uniform and typically vigorous plant whose seeds cannot be saved. Plants bred this way will display a random mix of genes. 

Now that you know the science, let’s get to the fundamental question at hand: what is it about heirloom seeds that captures our hearts and minds? For some, it is the history and provenance of the seed — the fact that each variety carries the story of the hands who preserved it for generations to come. Others adore heirlooms because they are selected and perfected with taste and eating quality in mind. Regardless of what initially draws you in, almost everyone can appreciate that by saving heirloom seeds, we are preserving a wide range of genetic diversity, which enables us to look for regionally-selected traits like extreme cold, heat or drought tolerance. In the end, this is what helps us grow more resilient gardens. 

Nearly every culture and region has saved and passed down seeds throughout history, and these signature varieties become part of the identity of a region or people. In the United States, heirloom varieties have dwindled over time in tandem with the shrinking number of home gardens in the country. 

But all is not lost. Heirloom seeds are being rediscovered as the collective excitement for eating locally-produced food and growing produce at home has been rekindled. Heirlooms are typically tailored to suit home gardens and market farms, and thanks to generations of home gardeners and seed savers, modern gardeners have a diverse selection of gourmet heirloom seeds from which to choose.

The open-pollinated breeders of today have focused on creating heirloom varieties with vibrant, new colors, tolerances for extreme weather and ultra-compact plants perfect for urban patio growing. Growing heirlooms means that we can choose a plant with qualities for our specific needs, whether it be your climate or your culinary intentions. 

Heirloom seeds are also considered cost effective: if you save your seeds, you will not have to purchase new ones each gardening season, and over time you will select an heirloom that is even better suited to your exact growing climate and taste preferences. 

Growing your own heirloom garden and saving your seeds means creating your own personal collection of plant diversity to enjoy and share with loved ones.

Got questions about heirloom seeds we didn't answer here? Have you tried heirloom gardening before and want to share your story? We'd love to continue the conversation.


Shannie McCabe

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