So, what exactly IS an heirloom seed?
We often get asked this question, and we agree it can be a little confusing! Isn't one seed just the same as the next? The answer is actually no! Seeds are incredibly diverse and there are many different ways of producing them - some are naturally pollinated and others are selectively pollinated by humans in order to gain specific results.
We like to think of an heirloom seed much like a family heirloom that has been passed down from generation to generation. Just like these family heirlooms, heirloom (or heritage) seeds have been saved for decades due to the value they represent. This may be in relation to their productivity, incredible flavour, resistance to disease, adaptability or another reason entirely.
So, other than great genetics - what makes a seed heirloom? An heirloom seed is an old variety (by definition pre-dating 1960’s) that has also been open pollinated, by either wind, insect or animal. Seeds collected will then produce an almost exact copy of their parent plant. Which means we can save the seeds and grow them again next season!
So basically, they are the old varieties of seeds that have not been altered in any way, simply saved year by year, generation by generation, and for very good reason. The intense flavours of heirloom fruits and vegetables are a very popular feature and many people choose to grow and celebrate them for this reason alone.
Seed saving organizations and home gardeners have been the catalysts that have kept heirloom varieties in existence over time, as larger seed companies generally focus on hybrid varieties with commercial qualities. It's our job as gardeners to help to protect our diversity of these incredible heirloom plants!
How do heirloom seeds differ from hybrid seeds?
Commercially available hybrid seeds (these are the seeds more commonly stocked in your local nursery or hardware store) are produced by selectively cross pollinating two different parent plants together to gain positive traits from both plants.
For instance, this might mean selectively cross pollinating two different tomatoes or two varieties of corn. Like we mentioned earlier, this is done in order to gain the positive traits from both plants, with the aim being that the resulting hybrid will produce positive characteristics such as higher yield, longer shelf life, greater uniformity, more even ripening or even improved colour and disease resistance. Unfortunately this often occurs at the expense of flavour and crop diversity, and this is why more and more gardeners are trending back towards heirloom seeds.
The most important thing to note about hybrid seeds - is that a seed that is saved from a hybrid plant will not grow true to either parent. Therefore you would have no choice but to purchase new seed each year.
The cross pollination of plants for commercial hybrid seed production is carefully controlled, however hybridization can (and does!) occur in the wild - including in your own backyard! You may notice one year that you have grown a weird and wonderful pumpkin that was a result of planting two different varieties of pumpkin close together. However if you attempt to save these seeds and regrow the same weird and wonderful hybrid pumpkin - you won't be able to do so as the seed won't be considered stable, and the resulting plant will simply not grow true to type.
The only way to avoid natural cross pollination is to understand which plants can cross pollinate with each other - and to avoid planting them close together or at the same time.
Now there is a good reason hybrid seeds became so popular. When industrial agriculture took hold there was a need to make large scale production and distribution of vegetables easier and more profitable, and to make growing vegetables less labor-intensive and more fail-safe. This is why you will find that the hybrid seeds you purchase and grow in your backyard are often quite reliable seeds to grow - as they have been designed to be just that.
Having said that - our preference is to grow open pollinated and heirloom varieties where you have the added benefit of being part of the full life-cycle of a plant. You can purchase the seeds, grow the plant, save the resulting seeds and re-plant them next season. Unlike hybrids, seeds you collect from one year will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant. And that's key to their survival.
Are heirloom seeds organic? Or GMO?
Not all heirloom seeds are organic - but one thing you can be certain of is that they aren't GMO (genetically modified) plants. Heirloom seeds have not been genetically manipulated in any way - they are simply saved and passed down through generations - hence any alterations have occurred naturally - which basically makes them the opposite of GMO!
If you are unsure whether the heirloom seeds you are purchasing are organic, it's best to check with the seed producers. We find that many heirloom seed varieties are produced without chemicals.
Why choose heirloom seeds?
Well like we mentioned above, heirloom seeds have been saved for their incredible characteristics - they produce unique and intense flavours and colours, and have other benefits that are very hard to produce on a large scale. We don't often find them in supermarkets for this very reason!
Some gardeners believe that the flavour of heirlooms is so superior that their time in the garden shouldn’t be wasted on anything else. Others feel it's their responsibility to grow heirlooms in order to preserve diversity in food crops so that we don't lose valuable genetic variation we might need down the road.
Another great reason to plant heirlooms is to save money! Like we have mentioned, when your heirloom plant goes to seed, you can then collect and save the seeds to plant again the next year and you will get an almost identical plant! This eliminates the need to go and buy the same seeds again every year. On the other hand, if you have saved the seeds from a hybrid plant - you won't be able to collect the seeds and grow the same plant, you will have to keep buying them again and again.
We sell lots of varieties of heirloom seeds, and grow them ourselves for all these reasons and more. Yet other people will choose hybrids as they are generally known to be easier to grow and they are happy with buying new seeds every year - and that’s completely fine. Our belief is that although heirloom plants may require a bit more care than their hybrid counterparts - the effort you put in will be more than worth it! Plus, there is the added benefit of knowing that you are playing an important part in preserving the genetic diversity of plants by growing heirloom seeds.
You can help!
Are you interested in starting your very own heirloom garden? Or would you like to help preserve these amazing seeds? You can help! Save some of your own seeds, share them with others, or even join a seed-saving organization and try your hand at growing some rare varieties! The more we grow and share seeds in our local area, the stronger these plants will become as they adapt to our soil and climate. You can also help to spread the word about the importance of heirloom seeds by sharing this blog post.
Hybrid seeds get a lot of attention, and we agree that many hybrid plants are fantastic. But we have come to rely a little too heavily on them. Nature is all about balance so let's bring some balance back - and what better place to start than in our own backyard! So go on and #throwsomeseeds (open pollinated, heirloom seeds that is!)