Everything you need to know about Growing Heirlooms
For many of us, a large component to modern homesteading is growing fruits and vegetables for ourselves and our families. We enjoy having a little bit of control over what we’re eating and how it was grown. Growing and eating fresh produce is hands-down a healthier lifestyle and it leaves us with healthier wallets, as well. If you have yet to try your hand at growing heirlooms, there’s some compelling reasons to introduce a few into your garden this year. One of the most exciting is the hundreds (and hundreds) of heirloom varieties that you won’t find in the typical grocery store. Everyday commercial vegetables don’t begin to scratch the surface of the many shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors that heirlooms (and other open-pollinated varieties) can offer.
When you do find the one or two heirlooms in the produce aisle, they’re extremely expensive. Growing these special vegetables in your home garden will have you saving money, eating the ultimate fresh food, and enjoying intense vegetable flavors that you’ve probably never tasted before. To top it off recent studies have shown heirloom vegetables to be higher in nutrition than their half-breed cousins — the commercial hybrids. Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds can be saved year-to-year, which means that technically after the initial purchase you’d never have to buy seeds again. Unless, of course, you’re like me and can’t wait to try the next variety that catches your eye (or palate). If generous gardeners around you (and vice-versa) share seeds from their plants; you may never have to purchase seeds for your garden again.
When you plant heirlooms, you’ll be putting food on the table that has its own genes and produces true seed. But what exactly does that mean? First let’s talk about the definition of open-pollinated, heirlooms, and hybrid plants (by the way, these terms define flowers and bulbs, as well as vegetables).
Defining Heirloom Characteristics:
Hybrid: The offspring of two plants of different breeds, varieties, or species as produced through human manipulation for specific genetic characteristics. Seeds kept from hybrids won’t breed true to the parent plant and can actually be sterile (as is the case for some commercial hybrids).
*Hybrids should not be confused with GMOs. A genetically modified organism has been altered by genetic engineering such as placing the gene from one species (like a fish) into another species (like a tomato).*
Open-Pollinated: These are plants that are pollinated naturally (by insects, wind, water, birds, or mammals). Seeds from an open-pollinated (OP) plant will produce seedlings and fruit that will look like the parent plant. In other words, these seed varieties are said to “breed true.”
Heirloom: Heirlooms are a sub-set within the open-pollinated class. Generally, they earn their title when they’ve been handed down from generation to generation for fifty years. Let me further clarify what puts heirloom varieties into a class of their own:
1. Heirlooms have time, stability, and history behind them. But the truth is that there’s no “official definition.” In fact, some purists don’t like to put varieties into that category unless it’s 100 years old or older (most agree to the age of 50 years). One thing is for sure, heirlooms are rich with culture being brought to us courtesy of immigrants from all over of the world. Plus, many of these seeds have wonderful stories — and names — attached to them.
2. Heirloom vegetables are always open-pollinated varieties, although not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. One example is when open-pollinated varieties are “created.” This happens when a plant breeder uses two heirlooms (or an heirloom and a hybrid) and crosses them in order to get certain desirable traits. The plant produced from the seed after the cross-pollination is a hybrid. This hybrid can be grown out, allowed to become naturally pollinated, and these seeds are saved.
They’re replanted and the cycle begins again and again for five years or longer. At the point where after the seed is grown out and it consistently grows true to its parent, it’s considered “dehybridized” and can be referred to as an open-pollinated variety. Are these new OP kids destined to become heirlooms? Maybe. If they’re loved and kept around for generations, these new open-pollinated plants could end up being the heirlooms of our future. After all, family heirloom varieties whose seeds have been passed down through the generations originated from cross-pollination (started out as natural hybrids) in the garden or on the farm.
3. It’s extremely important to note that no one owns open-pollinated or heirloom varieties; they remain public domain. Unlike many commercial hybrids, heirlooms have no secret parentage (as can be the case with hybrids) and they’re available to any gardener. By the way, the above characteristics belong to the open-pollinated veggies that aren’t necessarily considered heirlooms. They just may not have the extensive history as their counterparts.
Why We Celebrate Heirlooms
Due to some misconceptions floating about, I’d like to explain that hybrid plants are not being demonized within the heirloom-loving communities. Hybrids certainly have their place and I don’t know anyone that’s actually banished them from their home garden. Rather, the idea is to celebrate and share the incredible value of heirlooms and open-pollinated plants. Here’s the part where I share what it is about our heritage plants that just rocks our world (literally).
Unrivaled flavor — I’ll be the first one to admit that any vine-ripe vegetable grown in the home garden (hybrids included) beats the flavor of store-bought vegetables any day. That said, most heirlooms have the flavor factor in spades; the prolific hybrids have a hard time competing with that. Commercial hybrids are created for uniformity in color, shape, size, yield, transporting abilities, and the ease of machine-harvesting. This isn’t to say that there aren’t delicious hybrids — there certainly are. But there’s an amazing assortment of heirloom varieties (and therefore, flavors) to please the palate.
Genetic diversity — We can thank genetic diversity for the fact that so many varieties of vegetables exist in so many different areas. Gardeners in Alaska can have potatoes just like gardeners in California all because there are varieties adapted to each environment. A big drawback to planting monocultures (a large amount of only one plant variety) is that a single pest or disease can come in and wipe out an entire food crop. Genetic diversity in a garden is the first defense against this potential threat. An excellent example is the Irish potato famine of 1845. At that time all of the potatoes grown in Ireland were a variety called ‘Lumper.’ Farmers lost all of their crops, the people lost their food. Because the plants were genetically identical more than a million people died of starvation.
Adaptability — Heirloom plants have an inherent ability to adapt naturally over time to their environment (these plants are referred to as “landraces”). They adapt not only to the soil they’re planted in, but also to the climate.
Historically, as vegetable varieties adjusted to their environments they also developed resistances to local pests and diseases. The resulting plants ended up strong, viable, and suited to every area in the world. You can create landraces by planting an heirloom that does particularly well in your garden, saving the seeds from the best fruit, and replanting year after year.
A Little Control — Food is a basic human necessity and he who controls the seed controls the food supply. Unfortunately, about ten companies control three quarters of the commercial seed world-wide. They literally own it. You’ll be happy to know that heirlooms are owned by no one — and everyone.
A Link to Our Past — So when did “heirlooms” become heirlooms? It might surprise you to know that the term didn’t exist before the early 1980s. Before that, they were know by a different name; food. These plants were simply traditional vegetables grown in gardens everywhere — the staples of life. I find it fascinating that some of the heirlooms preserved by family seed-saving go as far back as 2000 years or more. Connected to these seeds is the history of our ancestors and who they were; giving us a basic indication of who we are. Seeds are truly living family heirlooms.
Those Funky, Fabulous Names
If you aren’t sold on heritage seeds by now, their names and stories will surely win you over. Check out this small example of some marvelous monikers:
- Drunken Woman Frizzy-Headed lettuce — You’re really going to resist that?
- Moon & Stars watermelon — This melon literally has a big, gold moon and little starts on the rind.
- Dragon Tongue beans — You can grow Dragon Tongues?
- Mortgage Lifter (Radiator Charlie’s) tomato — M.C. Byles of West Virginia (“Radiator Charlie”) bred this tomato variety to bring in more money while he was struggling in the 1940s. He bred the plant for six years to achieve some stability in the variety. He sold the plants for $1 each and paid off his $6000 mortgage.
- Rattlesnake beans — Pour these seeds into your kids’ hands and tell them to go plant some rattle snakes in the garden.
- Tigger melon — Tigger is child-hand-sized, bright yellow with zig-zagged orange stripes.
- Cherokee Trail of Tears beans — This bean was carried from the SmokyMountains to Oklahoma during the winter death march (1838-1839), 4,000 graves were left along that trail.
- Mascara lettuce — Named for her brilliant red, frilly leaves.
- Depp’s Firefly tomato — Read the name again. I’m just sayin’.
If you’d like to grow heirlooms and save the seed for next season’s garden, you’ll need to protect your plants from cross-pollination by other plants in the same family. The goal is collect pure seed and in order to do this, varieties are usually grown a certain distance apart (depending on the plant family), or by using physical barriers such as caging or bagging techniques. For example, pumpkin varieties can all cross-pollinate with one another, which would produce impure seed and the pumpkins produced from the next generation would end up a hybrid. I should also mention that there are times when it may not matter to you whether your plants are cross-pollinated or not. If you don’t plan on saving seeds, then it wouldn’t matter how (or who) pollinated your plants. Here’s why: When a plant is pollinated it produces the right fruit for that variety.
Let’s say the a honey bee carries the pollen from a ‘Dixie Queen’ watermelon and pollinates the flower of a ‘Crimson Sweet’ watermelon, the fruit borne on that plant will be a ‘Crimson Sweet.’ Cross-pollination doesn’t affect the resulting fruit of the first generation. It affects the seeds within that fruit. Therefore, only if you were going to save the seed from that pumpkin would you be concerned about whom was pollinating whom. One of the keys to successful gardening is choosing the right variety for your climate — this doesn’t get any truer than with heirlooms.
The best advice I can offer on choosing the right varieties for your area is to talk to your local nurseries and see if they offer varieties that thrive in your zone, find out what your neighbors are growing, and ask heirloom seed companies for guidance before you order. This year, plant the vegetables with the laugh-out-loud names, rich heritages, amazing colors, and mouthwatering flavors. See for yourself why the varieties of the past have earned their way into the hearts and homesteads of so many gardeners of today.