About two years ago I made the transition from growing all hybrid fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs to cultivars that are only produced from heirloom seeds. I’ll share with you some of the top reasons why many people are making the switch, and then I’ll let you know what drew me in hook, line, and sinker.
So, what exactly is an “heirloom”? It’s difficult to nail down a tried and true definition of what exactly constitutes an heirloom variety, but suffice it to say, heirloom seeds have been around for a very long time (the exact time is still being debated — at least 50 years, though) and have unique family traits that have been handed down, through careful seed saving and propagation techniques, generation after generation, in order to ensure similar results in the plants’ offspring.
Heirloom varieties are not grown on an industrial scale, here in America, where large scale farms now grow only a few varieties of crops that are selected for their productivity, uniformity, toleration of picking and shipping, and a few other characteristics that heirlooms can’t usually “measure up” to. Some might say that heirloom gardening is a reaction against modern agricultural trends. I suppose, if you polled one hundred heirloom gardeners and asked them if it were true, they’d say “yes”. However, there are so many other good, sound reasons why farmers and gardeners, like me, have taken the plunge and become heirloom growers.
One reason why gardeners love heirlooms is for their diversity. You just don’t see varieties like these filling up grocery stores bins! Before I started growing heirlooms, I’d never even seen or heard of things like Moon and Stars watermelon, which have skins that are splashed with irregular, bright yellow shapes, and look like moons and stars or Black Diamond Yellow Flesh watermelon, a variety that looks like a typical grocery store melon on the outside, but is anything but typical-looking on the inside, with its golden-colored flesh.
Others, no doubt, grow heirlooms for their taste. With all of the diverse cultivars out there, there are a myriad of unique flavors to choose from! Everyone who’s ever tasted a home-grown tomato, even if it’s a hybrid variety, knows the superior flavor to that of store-bought. Heirloom growers kick the taste level up a notch, however, and experience even more robust and complex flavors than were ever thought possible. Oh sure, there are varieties that are less desirable than others, but one bite of a pineapple or chocolate-cherry tomato and I’ve (almost) never wanted to eat or grow the standard, red faire again!
Many gardeners and farmers prefer to grow heirlooms is for their stability, predictability, and ability to reproduce offspring that are genetically similar, if not identical, to their parents — a lesson I learned and shared with you in a past blog about these sweet pea flowers.
The fact that heirloom plants protect pollinators is another reason why they are increasing in popularity. In an effort to keep unwanted pests away, some hybrid plants have been genetically modified so that they produce their own insecticides. Unfortunately, the pollen from these hybrid monsters is also laced with poisons that may, ultimately, be killing off the “good guys” — the butterflies and bees that are essential to ensuring a stable food supply for us humans. Furthermore, the pollen from genetically modified plants is “sterile” , potentially leading to malnourishment and even death by starvation in these little critters. Lastly, some hybrid plants, containing “terminator” genes and producing only infertile seeds are suspected of altering the digestive tracts of bees, causing something similar to human colon cancer, something never before seen in bees, which is leading to thousands upon thousands of mysterious bee deaths, known as colony collapse disorder. For this reason alone, more farmers and gardeners should be turning to growing more heirloom seeds. The sake of our food supply may very well depend on it!
On a lighter note, heirloom gardening also saves money. Because the seeds are open pollinated, they can be saved and replanted year after year, thereby eliminating the need to buy more seed every season. Because they are easier to produce, heirloom plants can also cost less than hybrid seed, freeing up more money to be spent on tools, watering devices, or more seed! I saved these English shelling pea seeds in the spring, and just replanted them for a fall harvest. I’m new at seed saving (which can be quite a complicated manner, as I’m learning) but it appears I did a fairly good job. I’m starting to see little shoots emerge from underneath the straw mulch where I planted them. We should be harvesting more yummy peas — direct descendants, and nearly identical in genetic make-up to their parents — in about a month.
In addition, some research has shown that heirloom vegetables are actually more nutritious than store-bought, commercially grown varieties. This all goes back to their genetic diversity. Industrialized varieties are bred to produce high yields, but often at the expense of their nutritional value. It’s true — one of the drawbacks of growing heirloom varieties is that they cannot compete with producing the vast amounts of food that commercially produced, hybrid varieties do; however, nutrition is far more important in my book than production is. Besides, with the money I’m saving by purchasing heirloom seeds, I just grow a few more plants to offset the lack of production. Needless to say, we’ve grown a bounty of fresh, home-grown produce from heirloom seeds this year!
Certainly, there are many more reasons why people prefer to grow heirloom, instead of hybrid varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. I could go on and on about my positive experiences with them. However, the reason why I now choose and love to garden with heirloom seeds can be summed up in one, simple word: history. Not because I am a history buff, or because it’s what I have my degree in. I love to grow heirloom plants because each one represents a real, live connection to the past; each one has a unique story, telling about how old they are, where they came from, and who grew them. Every time I go out into my garden, I feel as if I’m taking a trip back into history, visiting a distant time and place, and I wonder about things like: Who nurtured, cared for, and saved this seed? What kind of a garden did it grow in? Did it grace the table of a simple peasant, or possibly even a grand king? I think about Thomas Jefferson when I pass by the Spitzenburg apple tree that grows in my front yard and think about it’s distant ancestor that grew and was cultivated by President Jefferson in the gardens at Monticello. I marvel at the Iraqi man who pleaded with Jerre Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds to save his rare tomato seed, dating back to biblical times, before his farm became another victim of the American-Iraqi war. I want to grow its fruit in my garden, not only because of its connection to ancient Ninevah, where Jonah the prophet reluctantly called the city to repentance, but so that this precious man’s efforts to preserve its seed will not have been in vain. I’m both astounded and humbled to have the privilege to take part in growing heirloom seeds and all of their rich history. It’s what I love most about being an heirloom gardener, and it’s why I will, probably, never grow another hybrid seed as long as I live. I love sharing the stories about these plants with the customers who now visit my produce stand on Saturdays. There’s something amazing and, I think, empowering that happens when they realize they’re not just eating a piece of fruit, or a vegetable, but they’re partaking in a piece of history. I’m so glad I made the transition to heirloom gardening and I hope it inspires more people to make the switch!