what are heirloom seeds

Heirloom Seeds Are Passed Down Through Families Just Like Land


When you buy new seeds, often there are terms that can be somewhat confusing if you don't know what you're looking at. One of those terms is "heirloom". What are heirloom seeds? Are they regular vegetable seeds, or something more? The definition of heirloom has been debated and isn't always the same from place to place. For some, it means plant varieties that are over 50 years old. For others, it means seeds and plants that have been documented as passed down from generation to generation within a family or community. The only common agreement in definition is that it is an open-pollinated plant whose seeds can be saved and passed down from year to year, and the resulting plant will retain similar traits to the parent plants. This is true whether you're growing heirloom tomato seeds, beets, cucumbers, melons, or other fruit and vegetable varieties.

Open Pollinated Seeds

seeds in ground germinating bright green

When a seed packet says open pollinated, that means that the plant has been naturally pollinated by things such as birds, bees, insects, humans, or wind and rain. Open pollinated seeds at the end of the growing season can be harvested and saved, and when replanted, these plant varieties will grow out true the next year. This makes them genetically diverse, so there can be a lot of variation in the plants and fruits, but this makes them stronger as they adapt to the environment they are grown in from year to year, making them especially great for certified organic crops.

Hybrid Plants

hand planting seeds


Hybrid plants, however, are created from two parents through cross-pollination. Hybrid varieties need new hybrid seeds every year, as the seeds saved will be only one of the parents genetically. GMO plants are grown in a lab, which isn't necessarily a bad thing depending on how they are used, but we run into issues as a society when only GMO and hybrid plants are used.

In terms of environmental cost, preserving the genetic diversity of plants is extremely important. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, since the 1900s, we have lost almost 75% of plant genetic diversity as farmers opt for uniform, high-yielding hybrid plants and GMO varieties, which often require more use of chemical pesticides. Genetic diversity in plants is important for the overall strength of our ecosystem, especially in hardiness, which is the ability to adapt to a changing climate, and to build disease resistance.

Heirloom vegetables have withstood the test of time. They have better taste and flavor, and are more nutritious for us. They may not be able to produce as much as the GMO varieties, or veggies quite as uniform, but they have their own benefits. Over the long haul, if you're seed saving, heirloom plants are less expensive, plus they will adapt to your microclimate which is needed in organic gardening.

On a more personal level, focusing on heirloom varieties creates a historical connection between consumers, gardeners, farmers, and food. By carrying on garden heritage, we build a more sustainable future and stronger communities. As a home gardener, I absolutely adore heirloom seed saving people. Seed savers exchanges are so fun and a great way to find new gardening friends. Seed people just want to share the love of their non-GMO seeds, the varieties that they know and love and don't want to see die out.


Where To Find Heirloom Seeds

If you're looking to get into heirloom gardening, a good place to start is the seed catalog of seed companies that have taken the safe seed pledge. The safe seed pledge is an agreement by growers and sellers to never knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered types of seeds, and to protect genetically stable agriculture and seed varieties for the strength of future generations. They only sell organic seeds that are open-pollinated, and often have really cool plant varieties for sale. I highly recommend heirloom gardening and seed saving. There's no substitute for the great flavors of tried and true produce!

READ: Study Suggests Gardening is Just As Good For Your Health as Working Out

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