I love looking through seed racks and deciding which packets to buy. Much like choosing books, the photo on its cover often sells the product. But take some time to look past the picture of perfectly ripe tomatoes, bright green peas and flawless peppers and read the back cover. You’ll find planting details, as well as the number of days to germination and harvest. The packet should also tell you if the seeds are an heirloom or hybrid variety. I recently wrote a blog post explaining the differences, here.
So we know the differences between the different seeds but why should we care?
Here are 6 reasons why I choose to plant heirloom seeds in my garden.
1. Exceptional Taste
Heirloom vegetables taste better. It is as simple as that. A tomato from an heirloom plant is going to have more flavour. When I bite into a sun-ripened, heirloom tomato, the flavour bursts in my mouth and makes my taste buds sing.
A hybrid variety may look perfect. It’s likely to be a perfect shape and size and has a shiny skin, free of blemishes. As with everything in life, appearances can be deceptive and what it makes up for in appearance it’s wholly lacking in flavour. Hybrids have been bred to resist disease and produce a higher yield of fruit. When a plant produces a heavy load of fruit, it doesn’t have enough energy to share and the fruit is going to taste bland. Hybrid varieties of vegetables have been specifically bred for the market, allowing them to be packed and shipped without damage.
2. Higher Nutrition
Heirloom varieties tend to be more nutritious than their hybrid counterparts. In the same way that a plant has to share its energy amongst the large quantity of fruit, so too must the nutrients be shared.
Hybrid varieties of vegetables that are grown commercially have significantly lower nutritional content than they had 100 years ago, or even just 30 years ago. When plant breeders select varieties to develop plants that give higher yields, they are selecting mostly for the highest amounts of carbohydrates, rather than nutrition. Those carbohydrates are sugar and starches, exactly what many of us are eating too much of.
3. Heirloom seeds can be saved and grown again each year.
Seeds from heirloom vegetables can be saved and will always grow true to form. If you try growing the seeds from a store-bought hybrid tomato, you will be disappointed.
Some vegetables need two growing seasons before producing seeds. Some vegetables cross easily with other plants belonging to the same family. Carrots will cross with Queen Anne’s Lace, broccoli will cross with cabbages. It is still possible to save the seeds but you have to use growing methods that will isolate the crops from cross-pollination.
However, there are many varieties of vegetables that are easy to save. They can be dried and stored for planting the following year. You will always have a supply of seeds when you use heirloom varieties. I always save seeds from tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans and cucumbers. Many people think that cucumbers will cross-pollinate with melons and squash. That is not the case, but different cucumber varieties should be grown at least 200 feet apart. I grow pickling cucumbers in the garden and salad cucumbers in the greenhouse. That way, I can save seed from both.
When I’m deciding which seeds to save, I always refer to Seed Sowing and Saving by Carole B. Turner. She gives step-by-step techniques for collecting and growing more than 100 vegetables, flowers and herbs.
4. Heirloom seeds are often cheaper.
Saving seeds gives you free seeds each year. It doesn’t come any cheaper than that. Add to that the fun and savings that can be made by swapping seeds with friends and neighbours, and we’re on to a winning formula.
When I look through the seed racks I’m often horrified by the cost of some hybrid seeds compared to their heirloom counterparts. I recently checked out the cucumber seeds. Fanfare cucumbers (a hybrid) cost a whopping $5.25 for a pack of 30 seeds, while Straight Eight cucumbers (an old heirloom variety) cost only $2.50 for 75 seeds. You might be asking "why do I need 75 seeds?” Cucumber seeds stay viable for 5 years, that’s .50c a year for 15 plants each year. Even for families that enjoy Dill Pickles, that’s a lot of cucumbers for half a dollar!
5. Less Uniform Growth Patterns
Heirloom seeds produce plants that are less uniform than hybrid plants. You might think that's a bad thing, but do you want all your broccoli to be ready for eating the same week? I like to grow vegetables that will give me a steady supply over a few weeks.
Hybrids are modified to grow and ripen on a schedule. Commercial growers need plants that will be ready to harvest in one swoop. This means all of the fruit on a single plant is ready to harvest within a couple days of each other. That is what the plant is designed to do.
Heirloom varieties grow on their own schedule, giving you fruit that doesn’t ripen all at once
6. Continuing the Story
Heirloom seeds have been passed down through the generations. Many were brought from Europe by the First Settlers, and each has a story to tell. Over the years, plants adapt to the environment they are grown in. Saving the best seeds ensures that the plants become stronger each year.
By sowing heirloom seeds, we are connecting with our ancestors. By saving heirloom seeds and sharing them with friends we are continuing the story. We are preserving our gardening heritage for the next generation.
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