A visit to the local produce department of your supermarket is often a disappointment. Much commercially grown produce is bland, dry, and tasteless. Vegetables grown in your own garden from those brightly colored packets of hybrid seeds with pictures of luscious-looking vegetables often aren’t much better! Many gardeners are turning to heirloom seed to produce vegetables with flavor, sweetness, and juiciness that is unmatched by varieties sold in supermarkets.
Commercial seed is a cross-pollination of two varieties of plants, a hybrid that is bred for specific traits. Commercial growers want produce that is uniform in appearance, intolerant to drought, frost, and insecticides, and have more consistent yields that can be transported without spoilage. Flavor, variety, and nutrition are secondary considerations. Through hybridization, thousands of antique varieties of plants have been lost. For example, in the early 1900’s there were 7,000 different varieties of apples; now there are only about 1,000. In the last decade, the interest in heirloom gardening has increased dramatically, and some groups such as the Amish and Native Americans are devoted to preserving the heritage and history of our heirloom fruits and vegetables.
Seeds from hybrids will not reproduce the parent plant, and some may even be sterile. They may not have the desirable traits they were bred for. Heirloom seed will remain true to the parent plant, and are often handed down from generation to generation of gardeners. Many heirloom gardeners consider a plant to be an antique if it was developed prior to 1951, when commercial hybrids were introduced, but some will say that a plant variety must be at least 100 years old to be considered heirloom. There were many heirloom varieties that enjoyed commercial success in their time that are still available today, such as Kentucky Wonder green beans, Golden Bantam sweet corn, and Improved Long Green cucumbers.
Most heirloom plants have a special history. They can often be traced back through generations of farming families who brought seed with them from other countries, often Europe, South America, Africa, or Asia. The seed from the healthiest, strongest plants would be saved for the next year’s crop, and adapted itself to its new climate, soil condition, and pests.
Heirloom vegetables are always self-pollinated or open pollinated. Some varieties can be cross-pollinated by insects or wind, and care must be taken to avoid this if you want the traits of your heirloom fruits and vegetables to remain true to the parent plant. In small gardens, it is often best to only plant one variety at a time. In larger gardens, you will need to leave several feet between varieties or time your plantings so the different varieties will flower at different times. Occasionally, an heirloom seed will produce an off-type seedling, which should be weeded out of the garden.
Save seed from your heirloom garden for the next season’s planting and to carry on the seed for generations. Choose the healthiest plants before you harvest, and allow the seeds to fully mature. Take the seed indoors to dry thoroughly and store them in a tightly closed glass jar, in a cool location. Most seed will remain viable for three to five years when stored properly. Beans should be left to dry on the vines. Pull the vines and leave them in a shady location outdoors but bring them inside if it may rain. Store them in paper bags in a cool location.
There are a few drawbacks to heirloom gardening. It is easy to grow an heirloom garden but some varieties require a more experienced gardener. A particular variety may not be suited to the conditions in your back yard, or may be susceptible to conditions that were unknown to our ancestors. Seeds may sprout later than modern hybrids, or they may pop up sporadically. They may not pop up until you’ve all but given up on them! But the reward when you bite into that sweet, juicy tomato will make heirloom gardening worth the effort!