Handed-Down Harvest: Grow the Best Heirloom Varieties

Heirloom seeds have been passed down from generation to generation of gardeners for a reason—they grow the most beautiful, flavorful vegetables.

| May/June 2011

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.

Why Grow Heirlooms?

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.

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