Heirloom Seeds – Preserving our Past to Feed our Future

The notoriously ugly and delicious heirloom tomato

It’s an appropriate time to start talking about seeds. If you have any plans to plant any fruits, flowers, or garden veggies, now is the time to be planning your gardens and beds. After deciding which plants you want this year, deciding which type of seed you want to plant is an important second step.

Most of you have heard of an heirloom tomato. You may not know exactly what it is, but you’ve heard of it. You may even know that its an “ugly” tomato or that it’s usually priced higher than a generic grocery store tomato. What is heirloom? Why would it matter? 

First, let’s talk about what heirloom seeds – fruits, veggies, flowers, and everything in between – are NOT. Heirloom seeds are not first-generation hybrid seeds. First-generation hybrids are usually both patented and sterile. Heirloom seeds are also NOT genetically modified. I won’t tiptoe around the GMO “debate” to spare feelings. GMO seeds both threaten our food supply and our health. When genetically modified crops mix (wind, animals, you name it) with non-genetically modified crops, the DNA of that entire crop is changed forever. Forever genetically modified. Forever is a long time. We also do not know (but we do have an idea – and its bad) for sure how genetically modified food interacts with our digestive systems as consumers of these plants (not to mention the digestive systems and consequently the meat of the animals we may be feeding GMO crops to). We DO however, know that some genetically modified traits, such as Bt, were developed specifically as pesticide qualities and cause insects’ stomachs to explode. While your stomach or mine may be able to handle that quality in the food, it is foolish to think that it is not in some way negatively affecting the cells of our digestive systems. There is no debate – GMO is less desirable for a large number of reasons.

Now, what ARE heirloom seeds? Here you need a very brief biology lesson. First-generation hybrids exhibit what is called “hybrid vigor”. It means that they are the sweet spot of gene combinations for every plant trait that exists between the two parents. However replanting that first-generation hybrid will never result in that same sweet spot again. Heirloom seeds are very genetically diverse (big difference from modified), open-pollinated (by bees or wind) seeds that take advantage of the natural selection of favorable genetic traits for each type of plant. These seeds have been passed down for thousands of years to maintain the fantastic qualities of these plants. When you plant the seeds from an heirloom plant, the offspring plant will be pretty much exactly the same as the parent in terms of quality and vigor.

Here are the three main advantages of heirloom seeds:

1. They ripen over the season instead of all at once – as nature intended them to. You have probably had experience with buying too many tomato plants. You decided you wanted tomatoes, brought ten plants home, and in August, the tomatoes were rotting on the plants because you couldn’t eat them fast enough. Nature intended the plant to have a longer production cycle. Imagine you’re a raspberry plant. Bear with me. There is a deer that walks past you each day. You want that deer to eat your berries, because that deer will then poop the seeds from your berries all over the place and voila! – new raspberry plants and species preservation. Would you want to show the deer a smaller amount of sweet, ripe berries each day? Or, would you want to put all of your berries on the table in the same week? Which scenario gives you a greater chance of species preservation? Fruits and veggies that ripen slower over the season give you – the budding homesteader – ample time to eat and preserve the foods you are growing. Canning completely ripened tomatoes from 10 plants at once can seem a daunting task. Canning a few ripe tomatoes from each of those 10 plants is much more manageable, and you enjoy the fruits (pun intended) of your labor much longer.

2. Save seed, save species, save money! Sure the big-brand packet of green beans may cost 60 cents less at the grocery store. But you will have to buy that packet each year if you want to continue growing green beans. Seeds from heirloom plants can be saved each year. You never have to buy seeds again, provided you put in the effort to harvest some at the end of each season! You’re also ensuring that the heirloom species you planted will continue to thrive for years to come.

3. Beautiful colors and superior taste. I can PROMISE you that if you do a blind taste test comparing the generic red round ethylene-gas ripened store-bought tomato against an heirloom tomato, you will overwhelmingly pick the heirloom every time. They simply taste far superior. Those beautiful blue potatoes, purple peppers, green tomatoes, red carrots, and chocolate colored lettuce? You will never see them again unless heirlooms are preserved. And note, the colors aren’t some superficial trait that has no real value. Each naturally occurring color provides a wealth of different vitamins and minerals.

Some of the top-rated heirloom seed companies are:

Seed Savers Exchange: www.seedsaversexchange.org
Organica Seed: www.organicaseed.com
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: http://rareseeds.com
Sustainable Seed Company: http://sustainableseedco.com 

This year, I’m getting my seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. I’ll keep you posted as to how my crops are turning out. What are you planting this year?

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