There’s a buzz going around about “heirloom seeds” especially heirloom tomatoes, leading people to believe that heirlooms have more flavor or are otherwise superior to all other tomatoes. And that’s why they can charge you double for the seeds or plants.
That’s only partly true. Yes, they do taste good, but the biggest thing that makes heirlooms desirable is that they are are not hybrids, which means that you can save their seeds for future gardens.
We like to preserve heirlooms, because they taste good and because they thrive in a particular area, under particular climate or soil conditions. That means they are not universally ideal for every garden. Brandywine tomatoes, for example, are an heirloom that most gardeners rave about. But not me. This variety just doesn’t do well in my soil and climate.
What is an heirloom?
First, some definitions: A hybrid is the product of two plants, bred to capitalize on the characteristics of the parent plants. Sometimes it will take two, three or more generations of hybrid breeding to produce the hybrid with the desired characteristics. But the genetic information in the seeds from a hybrid is a bit wobbly. Seeds from a hybrid will produce a plant, but there’s no guarantee what kind of plant it will be. It could produce one of the parent plants or a weird combination of the grandparent plants. You just never know. What we can be sure of is that it will not reproduce true to type.
Any plant that is not a hybrid produces seeds true to type that you can use for future gardens. All plants that are not hybrids are called Open Pollinated (or OP). All heirlooms are OP, but not all OP are heirlooms. The difference between OP and Heirloom is that Heirloom seeds are OP varieties that have been around for 70 years or more.
The flavor of heirloom or OP plants is often superior to that of hybrids — but not always. Hybrids are usually bred to be disease resistant, uniform in size or shape, blemish free or have an extended shelf life. That doesn’t always translate into tasty or nutritious food.
Why choose heirlooms? Here are the reasons you may want to plant OP or heirloom seeds:
First: You can save the seeds to use in next year’s garden. If all your plants are OP or heirloom, you never have to buy from the seed catalog again.
Second: You can plant varieties that are resistant to the disease or pests of your area, that will thrive in the climate unique to your area. You don’t have to resort to chemical preventatives or to a less flavorful hybrid to get a good harvest.
Third: You are preserving a tradition. When you plant these seeds, you are part of a chain of gardeners and farmers going back generations. With heirlooms you honor the work they did that laid the foundation of today’s agricultural prosperity.
Fourth: Heirlooms offer a huge — and interesting — variety. It’s fun to try different varieties; purple carrots, spotted beans, round zucchini, white eggplant are just some of the many heirlooms that we’ve tried. It makes gardening an adventure and vegetables are more appealing. You may find that your kids are more interested in trying a purple bean or a black radish just because they are different. And of course you can always make it scientific: grow a known variety right next to a new heirloom and have your children measure production, flavor, size and disease or pest resistance compared to the control plant.
Fifth: Biodiversity. This is one big reason I prefer the heirlooms. As agriculture has become more industrialized, it has also become more homogenized. In 1903, seed catalogs offered 288 varieties of beets, 408 varieties of tomatoes and 307 varieties of sweet corn. Just 80 years later, there were only 17, 79, and 12 varieties respectively. What a shame that we don’t have those varieties any more!
Planting heirlooms and saving their seeds is just one small thing we can do to preserve plant diversity in our own little corner of the world.
If you’re looking for heirlooms that are born and bred right here in North Dakota, I highly recommend Prairie Road Organics, located in Fullerton, ND. This family owned business combines a commitment to preserving our seed heritage, offering seeds tempered and bred in North Dakota’s unique climate and a first rate customer service, making them one of my favorite places to get heirloom seeds.
I hope that no matter where you garden, you will have room in your garden to plant an heirloom or two. You’ll be glad you did.