What are Heirloom Vegetables?
The definition of heirloom vegetables varies, depending on who you ask. Some gardeners will tell you that heirloom vegetables are those they’ve grown successfully for many years. Others identify heirloom vegetables as those that are a traditional part of their family heritage or ethnicity. But most of the gardeners I know define heirloom vegetables as older, time-honored varieties whose seeds have been passed down from generation to generation, preserving all of the qualities of the original plant for decades or, in some cases, centuries.
Seeds harvested from heirloom vegetable varieties will reproduce ‘true’; meaning they’ll grow into plants that are identical in every way to the parent plant. This ‘true-to-seed’ nature results from open-pollination (pollination by insects, birds, or the wind).
Not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms, however. Hybrid seeds come from open-pollination, too. For example, if a bee collects pollen from a hybrid (possibly GMO) tomato plant, or even another heirloom variety, and then visits your heirloom plant, your heirloom plant will produce hybrid, not heirloom seed.
Today’s hybrid-variety garden seeds all come from plants that are intentionally cross-pollinated with different varieties of the same plant, through human intervention, in order to attain cultivars that have characteristics derived from both parents (e.g. a drought-resistant variety cross-pollinated with a strain that produces early fruit, resulting in a plant with both of those attributes). As a result, saving seeds from this year’s hybrid vegetables and planting them next year will always result in plants with different, often inferior characteristics, than those of this year’s hybrids.
So, if one of your objectives in growing an heirloom variety is saving the seed, you don’t want it to cross with something else. Heirloom beans are usually self-pollinating and, therefore, very popular among seed-savers. Heirloom tomatoes, like Brandywine, are popular too, because they’re relatively-easily-maintained ‘true-to-type’.
Hybrid V. Heirloom
Hybrids are preferred commercially because they tend to be uniform in their size and shape, whereas heirlooms tend to be inconsistent and, oftentimes, unusual-looking or downright ugly. But heirlooms are most-often grown, not for appearance, but for their unique and unrivaled flavors.
Hybrid varieties, more often than not, produce fruits and vegetables that ripen all-at-once, which again, is great for commercial growers. But for home gardeners, a gradual, but continuous harvest of fresh produce is usually preferable to the overwhelming glut of fresh vegetables often associated with hybrids in the garden.
And hybrid seeds need to be purchased every year. But when you grow heirlooms, you can save your own seed and, by doing so, save a fair amount of money, as well.
One often-stated line of reasoning for favoring hybrids is that they’re more resistant to diseases and pests than heirlooms. But, many heirloom-garden-enthusiasts would disagree. They’ll tell you that plants are considerably more adaptable than we may realize and that what rings true in a large field and what works small-scale, or in a home garden, can be very different.
By saving seeds, we eventually develop our own locally-adapted strains. With time, those strains acclimate to their surroundings. And as they become localized (adapted to an area’s climate, soil, and pests), heirloom varieties become better-able to endure attacks by insects pests and diseases. Yields may improve, too.
Why Save Seeds?
For as long as gardeners have been gardening, they’ve been collecting seeds from their best-tasting and best-performing vegetables, for future planting.
Many modern gardeners think of heirloom seeds as a comforting link to the past and a connection to the varieties they love to grow and eat. Others want to rest assured that genetic diversity is preserved and that they’ll continue to have unregulated and unrestrained access to all of their favorite heritage varieties.
Over the past century, we’ve lost a tremendous amount of our cultivated biodiversity, including hundreds and hundreds of heritage vegetable varieties. Thousands more have been in decline. And untold others have become extinct. As varieties disappear, we lose the history that surrounds them, the stories associated with them, and the seed savings skills connected to them.
Saving Seeds for Next Year
With a little bit of planning you can easily save seeds from this year’s garden harvest for next year’s planting. Keep in mind, however, that seeds from hybrid plants will be unpredictable, but heirloom seeds will reproduce true-to-type, and that strong, healthy disease-free plants will produce healthier seeds than weak, stressed plants.
Here are a few simple guidelines to make sure that your seeds are stored in a way that will keep them viable.
– Allow seeds to ripen fully before they’re harvested.
– Bring them inside for final drying, especially if rain threatens.
– Place thoroughly-dry seeds in tightly closed glass jars and keep the jars in a cool, dry location.
– Putting silica gel packets in with the seeds will help keep them dry.
– Storing them in a refrigerator may increase their life expectancy.
Before planting, you can sprout some of the seeds between moist paper towels to assess their viability. If germination is low, either discard the seeds or plant extra to achieve the desired number of plants.
Photo at top: Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine, and Black Brandywine tomatoes. Photo provided by Richard Gast.