Heirloom seeds have been passed down from generation to generation of gardeners for a reason—they grow the most beautiful, flavorful vegetables.
One day, an unexpected envelope from the Ukraine arrived in my mailbox. It was filled with heirloom tomato seeds, a gift from a friend. It turned out to be one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. The ‘Sweetheart’ seeds produced the healthiest, most prolific plants in my garden, loaded with heart-shaped, pink tomatoes. I recalled my grandmother’s tomato seeds drying on her windowsill years ago, and I decided to participate in the tradition by saving the seeds of this crop.
Since then, I’ve become a seed-preservation enthusiast. I’ve grown ‘Bohunk’ beans a friend’s relatives sent from the Old Country; the ‘Grandpa Ott’ morning glories that inspired the founding of Seed Savers Exchange, an 890-acre farm dedicated to preserving biodiversity; and ‘Drunken Woman Fringe-Headed’ lettuce, an Italian heirloom with ruffled red leaves. Sometimes I think the poetry of the names is reason enough to preserve these seeds.
Heirloom seeds are non-hybridized, open-pollinated seeds that, unlike hybrids, duplicate parent plants. Seed Savers Exchange cofounder Diane Ott Whealy sees the seeds, which are often passed down through families, much like a piece of heirloom jewelry. “Usually there’s a story about who found them, who enjoyed them and why they grew them,” she says.
Heirlooms connect us with the history of gardening, says garden writer and photographer David Cavagnaro. “They are the result of thousands of years of selection by backyard gardeners and small farmers—people who knew nothing about genetics but knew everything about flavor and what worked for them in their area.”
Saving seeds also saves money, says Minnesota Master Gardener Jennifer Behm. “You buy it once and can continue growing it as long as you wish.”
There are also broader implications to choosing heirlooms. Our seed supply is increasingly threatened, says Josh Kirschenbaum, horticulturist at Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, Oregon. “When wholesale seed suppliers merge, a lot of varieties fall by the wayside because corporations make more money selling varieties suitable for commercial growers,” he says. Most commercial companies promote hybrids bred for mechanical harvesting, uniform size and shape, long-distance shipping and long-term storage. Meanwhile heirloom vegetables—valuable for taste, disease resistance and hardiness—increasingly disappear.
An October 2010 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75 percent of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. Of the varieties listed in a U.S. Department of Agriculture commercial-seed inventory from 1903, only 3 percent still survive. But we have reason for optimism. The growth of companies such as catalog heirloom supplier Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds illustrates the increasing interest in heirlooms. Jere Gettle founded Baker Creek in 1998, printing 550 catalogs and offering 75 varieties. In 2011, he printed 265,000 catalogs offering more than 1,300 heirloom varieties.
You can help preserve our gardening heritage by planting heirlooms. Our expert gardeners share their favorites at right.
Our garden experts’ picks offer bold colors and flavors.
David Cavagnaro: homesteader, garden writer and photographer
Jere Gettle: owner/founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Josh Kirschenbaum: horticulturist at Territorial Seed Company
Sandi Weller: organic, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farmer
DC: Italian Romano: favorite pole bean, bar none; good as freeze bean, snap bean and dry bean; great barely cooked and in minestrone soup
JG: Chinese Red Noodle: yard-long asparagus bean; 18- to 24-inch brilliant red pods that cook to reddish-purple
JK: Dragon Tongue: bush beans with green pods streaked with purple; tasty as a green or shelling bean
SW: Scarlet Runner: prolific pole bean; beautiful red flowers; large purple or scarlet and black beans
Aztec Half-Runner: shorter and less prolific pole bean; light pink flowers; huge round white beans; great for soup
DC: Chioggia: gorgeously red-ringed Italian heirloom; greens are delicious, too; stores well
JG: Golden: flavorful golden roots that don’t bleed; extra-large, extra-tender leaves
JK: Flat of Egypt: disk-shaped; nice flavor; can grow large without getting woody
DC: Black-Seeded Simpson: standard leaf lettuce that holds up in the heat
JG and JK: Forellenschluss: crispy Austrian romaine; olive green leaves with bright burgundy splashes; sweet, mild flavor; means “Flashy Trout’s Back”
DC: Ha’Ogen: green-fleshed Israeli heirloom melon
JG: Charentais: best-selling French melon; sweet, crisp, salmon-orange flesh
JK: Moon and Stars watermelon: unusual speckled skin; early maturation
DC: Banana and Yukon Gold: fingerlings that stay firm cooked; good for potato salad
Burbank russet: baking potato; fluffs to a wonderful texture
JK: German Butterball: smooth golden skin; bright yellow flesh; buttery flavor; large yields
SW: Rose Finn Apple: pink-skinned, yellow-fleshed, waxy fingerling; good roasted or fried
JG: Scallop-type squash: flavor superior to zucchinis or crooknecks
JK: Tromboncino: Italian variety; can also be grown in winter
SW: Cocozelle: stays firm when cooked; subtle, nutty flavor
DC: Red Kuri: thick-skinned, orange squash; mellow flavor
Blue Ballet: smaller Hubbard-type squash with deep orange flesh; easy to grow
North Georgia Candy Roaster: extremely sweet banana squash
JG: Long of Naples: butternut squash; can reach 50 pounds
Sucrine du Berry: a French butternut; 3 to 4 pounds with dry, meaty reddish/orange flesh
JK: Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato: yellow-skinned, sweet acorn squash; stores well
SW: Sweet Keeper: easy-to-grow sweet baking squash in the Hubbard family; keeps well into March; looks like a light blue pumpkin
Golden Hubbard: large Hubbard variety that only requires 90 to 100 days; keeps and freezes well
DC: Amana Orange: beautiful, productive orange beefsteak; grows well in most areas
Amish Paste: climber; produces an abundance of big fruits; equally suitable as a salad or paste tomato
Tommy Toe: 1-inch cherry tomato; has won taste tests repeatedly
JG: Cherokee Purple: dark, blood-colored; sweet with strong tomato flavor; grows anywhere except far north
JK: Brandywine: large, pink-tinged beefsteak with remarkable flavor
SW: Russian Black Plum: prolific sauce tomato; large vines and soft fruits that keep well
Kellogg Breakfast, Cherokee Purple and Amish Paste: favorites for sauce
Red or Purple Calabash: small, ruffled tangy tomatoes from Mexico; favorites for salad
For more sources and information on heirloom seeds, read "Green Your Thumb with Heirloom Seeds Companies."