What are heirloom seeds, anyway?
For a contemporary twist to your vegetable garden this spring, take a step back in time with heirloom seeds. A time-honored tradition for some, heirloom seed use is becoming a trendy way for the modern day gardener to experience the old fashion flavor and appearance of vegetable varieties from years gone by.
Heirloom seeds are preserved for a special reason. Some heirloom seeds may have produced an exceptionally abundant crop for villagers long ago. Perhaps your grandmother set seeds aside from her favorite tomato plant because she had a particular fondness for the flavor. Or some choose to collect heirloom seeds simply because of the unique color or size of a certain flower or produce.
To qualify as heirloom, seeds are carefully extracted and preserved from the plants of a particular crop each year for at least fifty years. The crop has been kept separate and apart from other like plants to ensure pollination only within the population. Pollination occurs with natural mechanisms like wind, birds or insects. This type of pollination is called open pollination. Heirloom seeds are harvested only from open pollinated plants.
Open pollination differs from other pollination methods, such as hybridization. Hybridization allows different varieties of one plant to cross pollinate. This cross pollination is often a deliberate process accomplished in a controlled environment, but it also happens in the garden when several varieties of one plant are growing near each other.
The result of cross pollination is a new plant that is genetically different from its parent plants. The seeds from a hybrid plant are often sterile. If they do blossom, they will become an unpredictable variation of the two parent plants.
Open pollinated seeds, on the other hand, will produce a “true” plant. The new plant is considered true because it is genetically the same as the parent plant that the seeds came from. The seeds extracted from the new plant will produce essentially the same plant next year that the seeds were removed from this year.
Heirloom seeds from this true and predictable population of plants are extracted and passed down year after year. The seeds develop consistently the same from generation to generation. Heirloom seeds allow you to savor the same vegetables that your ancestors of up to three hundred years ago may have enjoyed at their dinner table!
Why you might want to grow heirloom plants
Heirloom seeds are chosen by today’s gardeners for an assortment of reasons. Gardeners who use heirloom seeds appreciate the rich flavor and high nutritional content of the produce. Unusual shapes, beautiful colors and extraordinary size adds to the enthusiasm over heirloom seed use.
Nostalgic gardeners use heirloom seeds to connect themselves to stories of the past. High quality heirloom seeds often have a verifiable documentation of the seeds’ generational history. To carry on tradition through gardening evokes a sense of charm and satisfaction.
The ability to contribute to sustaining certain varieties of plants is appealing for some heirloom seed gardeners. Whether for personal satisfaction or for the betterment of the gardening community, the preservation of old varieties is important. Genetic diversity and agricultural biodiversity is achieved with open pollinated gardening, and heirloom seed growth supports this goal.
For most heirloom gardeners though, there are two main purposes for saving heirloom seeds which encompasses most of the other reasons. The first is to preserve them as a true heirloom variety. The second is to adapt an heirloom variety to their own gardens.
To preserve an heirloom variety from seed, be prepared to do some babying. The goal is to achieve a predictable plant year after year. To accomplish this, heirloom varieties must be allowed to open pollinate. If cross pollination occurs, the variety that you set out to preserve will change. Allow your heirloom plants plenty of elbow room away from other plants of the same variety.
You will need to determine the requirements of the heirloom plants you are growing from seed. Be certain you are providing the proper support to encourage strong healthy plants. Weak plants will not produce strong seeds.
Make sure to grow a large number of plants. When you harvest the seeds, you will have more healthy and strong plants to select from. Some seed savers harvest up to two-thirds of a crop for seed. Keep that in mind when you are planting. For some vegetables, like beans, a large percentage of your harvest will be for seed rather than for eating.
You need to save an equal number of seeds from each plant for storage. This helps to guarantee the preservation of a stable cross section of genetic material.
If your purpose for using heirloom seeds is to adapt an heirloom variety to your garden, you can be a bit more relaxed. Select from the strongest plants you have grown to extract and save seeds from. While this will alter the genetic material more than would be acceptable for heirloom preservation purposes, it will strengthen the plant population within your own garden environment. If variations in plants occur, you are free to experiment and select your preferences as you harvest your seeds.
Advantages and disadvantages of heirlooms
The biggest advantage to growing heirloom seeds is the ability that you have to save the seeds year after year. Heirloom seeds that are preserved properly will produce the same plant each time they are planted. Most seeds that are used today have to be purchased every spring. This alone makes heirloom seeds unique and desirable. For those striving to be truly self sufficient, heirloom and other open pollinating seeds are a must have.
A disadvantage of heirloom seed use is the labor-intensive attention that is required. Heirloom seed harvesting should be a labor of love and is not for everyone.
How to save your own heirloom seeds so you don’t have to keep buying them
Seed saving techniques vary from veggie to veggie, but here are instructions for a few of the more commonly saved heirloom varieties.
To harvest tomato seeds, pick tomato fruit once it is fully ripened on the vine. Slice the tomato and remove the seeds with some of the pulp. Place in a glass jar and allow to sit for one or two days. A fermented coating will begin to cover the seeds. Spray the seeds with clean water. The viable seeds will separate and sink to the bottom. Discard the liquid and the dead seeds, and lay the potent seeds on a paper towel to dry.
Cucumber seeds are treated the same as tomato seeds. Pick from your healthiest cucumber plant when the cucumber is fully ripe and the rind begins to yellow and harden.
For beans, allow the seeds to become fully mature. Uproot the entire bean plant in the morning, and place it in the shade to dry. Do not allow rain or watering to moisten the seeds as they are drying. Remove the dried seeds from the pods.
All dried seeds should be stored in a refrigerator. Their containers should be clearly labeled with the name and date. Stored seeds should be used within four to six years.
Heirloom seeds are often available at your local nurseries. When you purchase seeds locally, you can be assured that your seeds are appropriate for your growing region. Heirloom seed companies are easily accessed online, too. When ordering online, be sure the seeds you order are compatible with your region.
Want to learn more about heirloom seeds?
Here are a couple of links to online heirloom seed sources used by some of the top university horticulture departments in the nation:
To learn more about saving your heirloom seeds check out these videos:
And to read more about seed saving, visit:
To read an expert food historian’s story of his life as an heirloom seed gardener read:
For a more in-depth understanding of open pollinating seeds visit:
To learn about how one garden community in Missouri is growing its heirloom seed base visit:
Creative Commons Flickr photo courtesy of Daniel Kulinksi