Heirloom Seeds

Heirloom Seeds

A top priority of both budding and experienced home gardeners is choosing what types of seeds to plant. In recent years, a growing interest has been shown in using heirloom seeds to grow vegetables, melons and other garden plants.

Age, pollination and parentage are the key factors that determine whether a specific seed is of the heirloom variety.

Heirloom Seeds

Do Your Seeds Date Back 50 Years or More?

There has never been a specific, single definition applied to heirloom seeds as an accepted standard in the garden industry. However, most experts agree that seeds in this category are identified by several factors, including age. If you purchase seeds that are part of a lineage that is several decades old, then you might have heirlooms.

Seed Starting Mixes

Seed Starting Mixes

Age, Pollination and Parentage Are Part of the Classification Process

The first hybrid crops were produced in the early 1950s. Thus, many people consider 1951 to be the latest year in which a parent plant originated that was open pollinated in order to produce heirloom seeds. After that, hybridization and, eventually, GMO production took control over the seed market so that the variety of species of fruits and vegetables able to be produced through heirlooms seeds was greatly reduced.

In the early 1900s, there were more than 7,000 varieties of apples being grown through the heirloom process. That number has dwindled to approximately 1,000 varieties of apples in the United States.

Heirloom Seeds

Open Pollinated Versus Hybridization

If the seeds you're using in your garden have been pollinated through hybridization, meaning they were bred in a laboratory in order to produce certain characteristics, such as being pest resistant, then they are not heirloom seeds. One of the key factors that all heirlooms have in common is that they have been collected through open pollination. Both self-pollinating plants, as well as, those that have been assisted by birds, butterflies or bees are considered "open pollinated" if pollination has directly occurred from a parent plant as opposed to hand-pollination through a hybridized process.

Countertop Compost Bins

Countertop Compost Bins

Heirloom Parentage Produces Sturdy Plants

If you plant seeds that have been collected through open pollination of a parent plant, the crops you produce with those seeds will be very similar to the parent plant. It's debatable whether the parentage of an heirloom seed must be restricted to seeds that have only been passed down through generations of families and communities without ever having been commercialized. Some people say that, as long as the seeds were open pollinated and are several decades old, they qualify through parentage to be categorized as heirlooms.

Imagine a motor vehicle that is 50 years old and still running well. You would no doubt consider such a vehicle to be well-made and sturdy. The same can be said for heirloom seeds that continue to grow robust, hardy plants that produce flavorful food crops.

Heirloom Seeds

Using Heirloom Seeds Has Several Benefits

Consistent quality/hardiness is merely one of several benefits that home gardeners gain in choosing to plant crops with heirloom seeds. Many people say they can tell when they are tasting a home-grown vegetable that has been produced with seeds of an heirloom lineage because they taste better than hybridized vegetables or crops grown through a genetically modified organism (GMO) process. Planting an heirloom garden is also a lot less expensive than having to purchase new seeds or plants each year; after the initial seed investment, you're able to collect seeds from your harvest to save for the next year's planting.

Sunflower Microgreens

Sunflower Microgreens

Is There a Downside to Heirloom Gardening?

Some gardeners lament that the hardiness of an heirloom seed is limited to longevity and quality, meaning the ability to retain nutritious value and flavor in crops that are decades-removed from a parent plant. However, such seeds may not be able to endure inclement growing conditions such as drought as well as hybrid or GMO plants. Heirlooms are also known to be prone to fungal, bacterial and viral infections, as well as pest problems.

You may notice a drastic difference in appearance in vegetables and fruits grown through an heirloom lineage as opposed to store-bought, hybrid-manufactured crops. Heirloom foods often have flaws, such as bumps, scratches or cracks. Heirlooms are also not as readily available at brick and mortar garden supply stores as GMO or hybrid seeds.

Heirloom Seeds

Non-heirloom Seeds are Pre-treated

One of the reasons that hybrid seeds are more pest-resistant and disease-resistant than heirlooms is that hybrid seeds are often pre-treated with chemicals. This means that, at the point of purchase, a gardener is getting a seed that already has been treated with pesticides or fertilizer. In fact, this is one of the reasons that growers do not save hybrid seeds for planting from year to year because the collected seeds will not have been pre-treated against pests and disease.

Those who prefer heirlooms, however, like the fact that they are growing food from seeds that have not been sprayed or treated with chemicals in any way.

Best Soil Test Kits

Best Soil Test Kits

Many Gardeners Prefer a Continual Harvest

Crops grown with heirloom seeds do not typically ripen all at once as hybrid or GMO plants do. Nothing is more frustrating than wasting a bumper crop because you simply can't consume that much food in a short amount of time, and many fruits and vegetables don't store well. Home gardeners who want to be able to continually pick fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens may want to consider using heirloom seeds, which will continue to ripen over a period of time, thereby eliminating the need for a bulk harvest and storage process.

Using seeds that have been passed down from a parent plant typically means crops will be lower-yielding and grow at slower rates, which is why they tend to be more nutritionally dense and consumable from garden-to-table as opposed to a bulk harvest. The produce you purchase at an average grocery store has usually been hybridized to produce high-yielding, fast-growing foods, which are treated with chemicals to help them last longer and withstand the shipping process.

Because heirloom-produced crops ripen over a slower period of time, the foods they produce are more nutritionally dense, especially regarding higher levels of vitamin C than hybrid-grown or GMO-produced crops. It's important to remember, however, that the more ripe a crop is when you pick it, the more prone to bruising it will be, and the shorter of a shelf life it will have.

Heirloom Seeds

How to Collect Seeds from Heirloom Plants

Heirloom seed collection works best when you select the healthiest, most robust and flavorful plants in your garden from which to save seeds. Instead of harvesting all the fruit from the plant, you allow some to mature on the vine so that the seeds will reach their full growing potential. There are several ways to collect seeds for future plantings, including allowing them to dry on the plant, as well as wet-seed collection or a fermentation process, which is commonly used to collect heirloom tomato seeds.

It's always a good idea to conduct research ahead of time so that you can choose the seed collection process that best fits your needs and ultimate heirloom gardening goals. Regardless of which seed collection process you use, it is important to store seeds in a cool, dark and dry place. It is also important to avoid cross-pollination, which can occur if crops such as melons and pumpkins are grown too closer together in a garden.

Can You Eat Crab Apples?

Can You Eat Crab Apples?

Where to Store Collected Seeds

Many home gardeners prefer to store their heirloom seeds in a refrigerator or freezer. No matter where you store your seeds, it is critical to make sure that no moisture gets into your containers; otherwise, mildew or mold may set in. Therefore, the key to success for heirloom seed storage is to choose a location that is consistently cool and dry and to make sure that your seeds are fully dry and your containers are dry before sealing.

Heirloom Seeds

Pilgrims and Immigrants Often Carried Seeds

There are several varieties of heirloom seeds that can be traced directly back to the first pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower ship in 1620. Throughout the centuries that followed, many people who immigrated to the United States from other countries of origin would often carry small containers of garden seeds with them and would save and collect seeds to pass on to their children and grand-children. Especially in times when money and food were scarce, families prided themselves on growing small gardens in their own backyards to have nutritious foods as sustenance when pantries were lean.

From olive cuttings to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and more, the majority of households in the New World included small "cottage" or "kitchen" gardens, which were the beginnings of an heirloom seed legacy in America. Military troops, as well, would often carry seeds to plant crops when they entrenched at camps they knew they would be living at throughout a growing season.

Even today, many families take pride in passing heirloom seeds down from generation to generation, with stories being told of how a tomato sauce was made from a plant grown with seeds from "the old country." Heirloom seeds also make a wonderful gift for a newlywed couple who has just purchased their first home with plans to grow a garden. Whether chosen for flavor, nutritional value or legacy, planting fruits and vegetables with heirloom seeds is a viable option that continues to be the choice of many home gardeners in the United States and throughout the world.

Best Rooting Hormones

Best Rooting Hormones

How Non-gardeners Can Obtain Heirloom Foods

Perhaps you do not plant a home garden but want to provide the healthiest food options available for your family. It pays to visit various farmers' markets in your area to ask growers what types of seeds they used in their gardens. There are many local gardeners who use heirloom seeds who make their harvest available to the public.

Purchasing heirloom-grown produce from a local food stand may be a bit more expensive than buying store-bought GMO or hybrid foods. However, many people say that the flavor and nutritional benefits they gain from eating produce grown with heirloom seeds is worth the added expense than paying less for food that lacks nutrition and has been contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Heirloom Seeds

Where to Purchase Seeds from the Heirloom Category

There are several ways to make an initial investment for heirloom seeds. Many people purchase their seeds online from reputable companies who guarantee their products as being organically grown and meeting the accepted standards of criteria as an heirloom variety. You might also be able to find local gardeners in your area who are willing to trade or barter for seeds. Some garden supply stores stock heirloom seed packets on their shelves, as well.

A benefit of purchasing your seeds locally is that you can be assured that the crops you will produce are appropriate for your growing region. If, on the other hand, you decide to purchase seeds online, it is important to inquire as to whether a particular seed is compatible with your growing region. If you are new to gardening, it is helpful to speak with experienced gardeners in your area who use heirloom seeds to ask if they have a favorite resource for purchasing new seeds, as well as what has worked well or not worked for them regarding plant hardiness, pest problems and disease.

In most areas, there are local cooperative research and extension services that can provide useful information and support regarding all aspects of home gardening. Your local extension office can answer any questions you might have about a specific type of heirloom seed with regard to your soil type and growing region.

Guide To Growing Juliet Tomatoes

The Guide To Growing Juliet Tomatoes

Most Popular Types of Heirloom-growing Seeds

There are many varieties of gardening seeds available on the market today that have been passed down from a parent plant spanning decades, even centuries of growing seasons. The following list shows some of the most popular types of heirloom-variety seeds:

  • Lemon cucumber
  • Cherokee purple tomato
  • Brandywine tomato
  • May Queen lettuce
  • Dragon's Tongue bean

Achieving success in a home garden is a process that is borne of experimenting with various seeds, watering schedules and integrated pest management systems to yield the healthiest, most abundant crops possible. Using heirloom seeds can definitely present unique gardening challenges. However, once you get a taste of the nutritious, flavorful produce your legacy seeds bring to harvest, you may never want to use another type of garden seed again!