When you decide to grow your own vegetables, you have two main types of seeds to choose from: modern hybrids or heirloom varieties.
Hybrid seeds are created by crossing two selected varieties. These seeds usually have a higher yield, greater uniformity, grow quicker and deliver all their vegetables simultaneously (making picking an easier process).
The other option? An “heirloom". The definition is open to dispute. But the term is usually applied to fruit, flower or vegetables varieties that were being grown before World War 2. Heirloom vegetables are old-time varieties, open-pollinated, and handed down through multiple generations of families. Open-pollinated means seeds you collect from one year will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant. This is no longer true of Hybrid varieties which in most cases haven’t been bred to reproduce themselves.
Why are heirloom vegetables still in existence then? The reasons are numerous; flavour, nostalgia, biodiversity, specific functions and most importantly flavour!
Heirloom vegetables offer a spectacular range of flavours and shapes. They may be more tart or more sweet, green instead of supermarket red, long instead of the standard oval, ribbed or striped rather than smooth. Often they have a depth and complexity of flavour you can’t find at the grocery store. “A lot of the breeding programs for modern hybrids have sacrificed taste and nutrition,” says George DeVault, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, the leading non-profit organisation dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom and other rare seeds. “The standard Florida tomato is a good example. Instead of old-time juicy tangy tomatoes, it tastes like cardboard. It was bred to be picked green and gas-ripened because that’s what was needed for commercial growing and shipping.”
To the gardeners who love them, it matters that the 'Mortgage Lifter' tomato came from a man who bred his own tomato plants, selling enough of them to pay off his mortgage. Many heirloom vegetables have their own unique story as to why the variety was grown in the first place. Often it is very site specific, as a result of factors at the time. Not only the need to pay off a mortgage during the great depression, but heirlooms have adapted to specific growing conditions and developed disease resistance over a long time.
A further reason to grow heirloom vegetables is to preserve biodiversity. Just as the world’s animal populations are declining, so have many of the crops become lost. As commercial practices concentrate their crops into fewer and fewer varieties, our ability to produce food in the face of drought, unusual diseases and pestilence declines.
We grow our vegetables near our venue White Light with what is called "organic gardening," based on manure and mulch. This used to be standard practice for all growers, who accepted risk and variation from weather, insects and disease. This approach is more labor-intensive, less hardy to some diseases and gives us lower yields.
What we do get is unbelievable flavour, sun spots, insects scurrying around, and all sorts of different shapes and sizes.
Seed breeders are trying to find the best of both worlds, crossing modern hybrids with older, more flavourful heirlooms. These new hybrids are less risky, but they also aren't open-pollinated, so you won't get consistent results by saving the seed.
We use a mixture of our organic heirloom produce and hybrid grown vegetables. What are your preferences and experiences? Please let us know what you think are the best varieties? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
There are certain places you might want to check out to get heirloom seeds locally. These places include: local farms, seed exchanges, and botanical gardens.
Here are a few local websites: