Growing your own vegetables has become a favorite activity for many people who don’t want to purchase mass-produced vegetables from the grocery store. Whether they’re trying to escape any potential pesticides used on those store-bought vegetables or they’re doing their part to fight food insecurity, they take immense pride in their home-grown vegetables. But, if they’re not carefully choosing their vegetable seeds, they could be growing vegetables that are still inferior to what they could be growing with heirloom vegetable seeds. Here’s more on why heirloom seeds produce excellent vegetables.
The word “heirloom” has several connotations, but when using this word to refer to vegetable seeds, it means that these seeds were developed prior to 1951. That was the year when the first hybrid vegetables were introduced and therefore forever changed the way food grows. Some heirloom vegetables have been around for hundreds of years and are open pollinated, which means their seeds are collected and replanted the following year.
Non-heirloom vegetable seeds are not saved nor replanted and prior to 1951, this would have been seen as a huge paste of potential food. People who grow heirloom vegetables are able to select the seed that produces the best-tasting vegetables or those that develop into the most productive plants to eventually create a garden that yields the most flavorful vegetables in plentiful quantities.
Heirloom crops are also important for another reason. They maintain the genetic foundation of the original vegetables, providing more diversity, a key component in ensuring crops can withstand harsh weather conditions, diseases, and pests. Hybrids have been bred for so long that they are now almost uniform in genetic makeup, so if one crop is not hardy, all crops are not hardy.
While these hybrid seeds yield more consistent crops, one reason why they’re so popular among commercial food-growers, they aren’t actually combating food insecurity because one bad year could destroy 75% of the food grown worldwide. In fact, in the U.S. alone, less than 10% of the cabbage, field corn, and pea varieties grown 100 years ago are now gone.
Obtaining Heirloom Seeds
Thanks to the foresight of some gardeners and farmers who carefully guarded their seeds, people who want to start an heirloom garden today can access these seeds. There are some companies that only sell heirloom seeds and you can find heirloom seeds for certain types of vegetables in gardening stores. But, if you’re looking for the largest selection of heirloom seeds, you’ll want to join the Seed Savers Exchange, located in Decorah Iowa. It is home to the biggest nongovernmental seed exchange in the United States and offers 20,000 plant varieties, all of which were developed before 1951.
You don’t have to become a member to participate in swapping seeds with other people through the exchange, and anyone can shop for many rare heirloom seeds right on the exchange’s website. All seeds that the exchange collects are backed up at the Svalbard Global Seed Bank to ensure they do not become extinct, but not all seeds that have been saved are available for purchase.
Growing Heirloom Seeds
Even though growing heirloom seeds has many benefits, they can be challenging to grow, especially if you’re just learning to garden. This is because heirloom seeds have not been bred to be disease resistant, so they are particularly susceptible to common crop diseases like fusarium wilt and verticillium. If your garden is already dealing with disease or pests, you may not want to grow heirloom plants until you’ve eradicated the problem.
Start with self–pollinating vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, beans, peas, and lettuces to have the best chance at success. These are also great plants for saving seeds because they will duplicate the parent plant’s qualities. It’s advised that you plant just one variety of a vegetable species at a time to prevent cross pollination and they should be planted at least 10 feet apart to discourage insect pollination.
Select the seeds from the most productive and best-tasting plants to save for the next crop. Let the seeds ripen before you harvest them to give them the best odds of producing healthy plants, then bring the seeds inside to dry. Be sure to clearly label them with the variety and harvest date because you should only use them for between 3 and 5 years. Store them in a sealed glass jar in a dry, cool area.
Growing heirloom seeds requires quite a bit more attention and care, but the vegetables they’ll produce are worth it. You do have to be on the lookout for specific plant diseases and take measures to prevent pests from invading your garden, but you’ll be amazed and proud of the vegetables you grow. Plus, you’ll have the seeds to do it again the following year.