There’s a buzz going around about “heirloom seeds” especially heirloom tomatoes, leading people to believe that heirlooms have more flavor or are otherwise superior to all other tomatoes (thus they can charge you double for the seeds or plants.) Don’t be fooled. While I love heirloom garden seeds, the biggest thing that makes them desirable is that they are are not hybrids, so you can save their seeds for future gardens.
Heirlooms were preserved because they tasted good and because they thrived in a particular area, under particular climate or soil conditions. That means they are not universally ideal for every garden. Brandywine tomatoes, for example, are an heirloom that most gardeners rave about. But not me. This variety just doesn’t do well in my soil and climate.
What’s the difference?
First, some definitions: A hybrid is the product of two plants, bred to capitalize on the characteristics of the parent plants. Sometimes it will take two, three or more generations of hybrid breeding to produce the hybrid with the desired characteristics. But the genetic information in the seeds from a hybrid is a bit wobbly. Seeds from a hybrid will produce a plant, but there’s no guarantee what kind of plant it will be. It could produce one of the parent plants or a weird combination of the grandparent plants. You just never know. What we can be sure of is that it will not reproduce true to type.
Any plant that is not a hybrid produces seeds true to type that you can use for future gardens. All plants that are not hybrids are called Open Pollinated (or OP). The difference between OP and Heirloom is that Heirloom seeds are OP varieties that have been around for 70 years or more. Otherwise, there really is no difference between OP and Heirlooms.
The flavor of Heirloom or OP plants is often superior to that of hybrids—but not always. Hybrids are usually bred for disease resistance, uniformity, blemish free or extended shelf life. That doesn’t always translate into tasty or nutritious food.
Why I prefer OP and Heirloom seeds
First: I can plant varieties that are resistent to the disease or pests of my area in the climate unique to my area. I don’t have to resort to chemical preventatives or to a tasteless hybrid to get the same result.
Second: I am preserving a tradition. When I plant these seeds I am part of a chain of gardeners and farmers going back generations. I honor the work they did that laid the foundation of my prosperity.
Third: Heirlooms offer a huge—and interesting—variety. It’s fun to try different varieties; purple carrots, spotted beans, round zucchini, white eggplant are just some of the many heirlooms that we’ve tried. It makes gardening an adventure and vegetables are more appealing. My kids are more interested in trying a purple bean or a black radish just because they are different. And of course we always make it scientific: we grow a known variety right next to it so they can measure production, flavor, size and disease or pest resistance compared to the control plant.
Fourth reason: biodiversity. This is probably the biggest reason I prefer the Heirlooms.
Look at this chart to see how dramatically our choices of seeds and plant varieties has been diminishing over recent decades:
Here is an article that answers the question of why biodiversity is in important. Planting heirlooms and saving their seeds is just one small thing we can do to preserve plant diversity in our own little corner of the world.
I hope that no matter where you garden, you will have room in your garden for an heirloom or two. Or more.