When you shop for vegetable seeds for your garden, there are two main types to choose from modern hybrids or heirloom vegetable varieties. Hybrid seeds are created by crossing two selected varieties, sometimes resulting in vigorous plants that yield more than heirlooms. Heirloom vegetables are old-time varieties, open-pollinated instead of a hybrid, and saved and handed down through multiple generations of families. Usually, they cost less than hybrid seeds. But there are more reasons than just seed prices to choose heirlooms.
Why Choose Heirloom Seeds?
Cabbages from Sicily, nutty Native American squash, your grandma’s deep red canning tomatoes — they all immediately invoke flavorful images for those who knew them in childhood and others who have discovered them.
Many heirloom vegetables have been saved for decades and even centuries because they are the best performers in home and market gardens. Ship-ability wasn’t a concern so flavor could take a front seat, and it did.
What direct-to-market farmer would survive if his cucumbers didn’t taste as good as his neighbor’s? Backyard gardeners rarely cart their produce cross-town much less cross-country. Even today, small market farmers don’t usually transport their harvest in huge tractor trailers. There’s no need to plant veggies bred to be tough when you can plant heirloom vegetables that are tender, sweet, juicy and just plain delicious.
“Seeds saved from heirloom vegetables will produce plants that are true to type, unlike hybrid seeds. If you try to save seed from hybrids, you usually won’t get good results,”
says Andrew Kaiser, manager at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Also, with heirloom vegetables, you can choose what works best in your garden. If you save seeds from heirloom vegetables over several years, you can gradually select seeds from the plants that perform best in your local soil and climate. This will give you a seed strain that is more resistant to local pests and diseases. Plants are much more adaptable than most of us realize.
All you need to do is to take a nice, old variety that has a lot of redeeming qualities, and select what performs well in your garden,” DeVault says. “Save those seeds, and you can create your own locally adapted variety.”
One hundred and fifty acres of French heirloom melons growing in Texas might be devastated by an infestation or illness, but when you’re talking about small, diverse gardens and heirloom seeds that have been selected to grow well in that region, heirlooms may actually be a better choice.
“Varieties that are localized tend to survive attacks by pests and disease quite well,” Kaiser says. When you select and save seeds from the most successful heirloom vegetables from your garden, the more reliable those vegetables will become year after year.
Not only do you get a better, locally adapted strain of a variety when you save your own seed; you also save money because you don’t have to purchase new seeds every year, as is the case with hybrids.
Commercial growers love the uniformity of hybrids because they can pick the crop in one fell swoop. But for home gardeners, a gradual supply of fresh produce is usually preferable to the glut of the all-at-once harvest that many hybrids provide.
Creating an heirloom that is perfectly suited for your particular garden can take years of seed saving and planting out. If you want immediate gratification, you can do a little legwork before selecting the variety of heirlooms you want to use. Dig into your family or community tree to see if any of your elders can recall names of varieties that grew well in the region or were particularly memorable. You may stumble across a gardener still growing a family heirloom.
“A particular variety can stay in a family for many generations and have quite a history. They can be passed down just like other heirlooms — like a grandfather clock.”