Seeds are just seeds, right? I hate to break this to you, but the answer is definitely no. Seeds are as different as one can imagine – as different as humans are from one another. I remember my 97 year old grandpa watching a football game with my 15 year old son a few years ago. Those two are family, but are completely different. I would equate Grandpa to an heirloom tomato – specifically the non-GMO and organic Brandywine tomato with a summertime flavor to beat the band. My son, on the other hand, is like a newly-developed hybrid hothouse tomato plant, built to withstand long-haul truck shipments, rather than providing good flavor. Nothing against my wonderful son here… he’s the greatest kid ever. But he’s a teenager, and just doesn’t understand (nor really care about) the value of good quality in garden produce quite yet. Both the Brandywine and the hot house tomatoes are family, but they could not be any more different. Check out the photos below. I don’t know about you, but the tomato on the left looks about 100 times more luscious than the one on the right.
Anyway, back to the seeds. All seeds are either heirloom or hybrid. The difference between the two lies in how recently the variety has been crossed with others, which dictates how reliably the seeds will reproduce if planted the following year. Interesting fact: if you look closely at the seeds in “survivor seed vaults or kits,” they’re almost always heirloom varieties. Why? Because if our food supply suddenly disappeared and folks had to use seeds to grow their own food, only heirloom seeds can be saved and planted year after year. Hybrids are known to be more disease resistant, but you sacrifice the ability to save your seeds and grow the same plant next year (because seeds of a hybrid plant don’t reproduce that same hybrid). So, the baseline difference between hybrid and heirloom is:
HYBRID = Varieties produced new each year through forced cross-pollination between two different varieties of plants.
HEIRLOOM = Varieties grown with open pollination and selected down over many years to plants with desirable qualities.
To be considered a true heirloom, it’s debatable how old a variety must actually be. Some gardeners only recognize varieties that are more than 100 years old, while others accept any that pre-date 1945. It’s really a matter of opinion, but the main point is how they are created. Hybrids are produced new each year through forced cross-pollination between two different varieties of plants. There is no attempt to develop a seed “line” for a hybrid – history and development effort just don’t really matter. Hybrids are developed for purpose – to handle shipping containers damage-free, to have longer storage times, or to be more disease-resistant. Not much attention is paid to flavor, fragrance, or texture. In contrast, heirloom varieties were developed over many years and many generations, with the goals of amazing flavor and resilience at the forefront. This was accomplished through the old-fashioned method of growing plants from seeds with desirable qualities, keeping the seedlings that retain those desired qualities and tossing those that don’t. Gradually over the years, the seed line was refined so that more and more of the seeds produced plants with the desired characteristics. Finally, those undesirable qualities were completely bred out of the strain.
If you want those incredible-tasting tomatoes, peas, and cucumbers that your grandparents had – go with the heirlooms. Not only are you keeping alive generations worth of work done by gardeners before you, but you are growing a tomato with character, both in appearance and in taste. I figure, if we’re going to all of the effort to build and maintain our gardens, the produce coming out of it should be worth every single bite we take. I want that summertime flavor explosion on my tongue, so heirlooms are for me. The last two years I’ve grown Pineapple tomatoes, a wonderful heirloom variety. They taste like tomatoes, but have the slightest hint of pineapple flavor. And they are beautiful!
Another often-overlooked advantage to heirloom varieties is a gradual and steadily ripening crop. One of the main reasons commercial growers love the uniformity of hybrids is because they all ripen at the same time. Those crops can be harvested and shipped in one fell swoop. In backyard gardens though, heirlooms provide you with a longer season – fruits and veggies will take their time, and ripen when they feel like it… one handful at a time.
And honestly, a lot of it is about keeping the past alive. The only reason we have hybrids with little flavor and thick, durable skins is because they are built to withstand shipping cross-country. I don’t want our original – our heirloom – varieties becoming extinct. So many years and so much effort has gone into making them what they are, and I appreciate (and taste) that effort each time I sink my teeth into an heirloom tomato fresh off my backyard vine…. or each time I can pickle with heirloom cucumbers grown underneath my big garden arch. In many cases, these heirloom vegetables have been centuries all around the world, and have great stories about how they made it over to the USA. What a great feeling – to be connected to gardeners from different parts of the world through tiny little heirloom seeds.
So join me – and join all the other backyard commandos who are incorporating wonderful heirloom plants into our gardens. Below is a list of what I planted in my garden this year. As you can see, not everything is an heirloom variety (shown in green), but I try to work in as many as possible.
- Beets: Detroit Red, Early Wonder Tall, and Green Top Bunching
- Carrots: Chantenay, Parisian, Kuroda, Scarlet Nantes
- Cucumbers: National Pickling, Homemade Pickles, Parisian Gherkin, Tendergreen
- Lettuce: Flame, Bibb Blend
- Leeks: American Flag, Varna
- Onions: Cippolini Yellow, Evergreen Bunching, Italian Torpedo Onion
- Shallots: Zebrune Heirloom
- Peas: Sugar Daddy, Pea Progress #9, Green Arrow, Oregon Sugar Pod
- Peppers: Sweet Nardello, Sweet Marconi Red
- Tomatoes: Valencia, Isis Candy, Crimson Carmello, Prudens Purple, Mortgage Lifter, Manitoba, Black Krim, Orange Strawberry, Brandywine
- Fennel: Florence
- Garlic Chives
- Potatoes: German Butterball, Rose Finn Apple, Amarosa
- Berries: Honeyberry (2 varieties), Blueberry (4 varieties), Raspberries (2 varieties), and Mulberry (1 variety)
Plant, grow, and enjoy the same varieties that your great, great grandparents did. Plant some heirlooms!