We hear a lot about using Heirloom seeds when we garden as a great way to avoid GMO’s and other unwanted contamination in our food supply but…
What are heirloom seeds?
Heirloom seeds are a way to connect with the plant’s that have been in gardens around the world for centuries, but each strain has to have been around for at least 50 years. These are the seeds your grandparents used before mono-cultures came around and took over. They are seeds that are planted every year and after the plant has completed its life cycle and sets out new seeds, these are then collected to use the next year. Major seed companies have test gardens all over the world collecting seeds that are free from genetic modification, but instead cross pollinated to exhibit desired traits like flavor, texture, color, pest resistance, weather heartiness, and more. Do you remember when you learned about Mendel and his pea plants in high school? That is what we are talking about here.
Trait specific selection is something humans have been doing since the dawn of agriculture to help breed plants that are more resistant to temperature changes, insect attacks, shortening the time that the plant flowers and sets fruits, to improve the size, shape, flavor, color and other genetic traits of the fruit to be more desirable for human consumption.
Understanding basic genetics will help you to understand how Heirloom seeds work and why they are important. Parent plants that have all the specific qualities that a gardener wants to enjoy the fruits of next year are the plants that they collect the seeds from to sew again the following year. The child plants though will have changed as they are now the product of their parent plants and open pollination by bees, moths, and other pollinators. Sometimes the child plant is better and stronger than the mother plant and sometimes they inherit the genes that you don’t want to pass on to future seed generations. When looking at a seed packet, it often will tell you what generation that seed is.
Heirloom plants aren’t as consistent as some commercial seeds, instead they will produce fruits of different sizes and colors than some might think to be the “ideal” grocery store produce. For instance, the most popular Heirloom tomato is Brandywine as it is large, very tasty and juicy, and comes in a range of purple hues.The fruits will all look different from plant to plant. It’s like when parents have five kids, they might look similar but they are never truly identical, each one is unique.
One of the benefits of heirloom gardens is the delicious traditional produce you get to grow and enjoy in your home. These seeds are handed down from generation to generation to pass on their desirable characteristics, so most heirloom gardeners know the importance of the pollinators, and keep toxic pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers out of the garden, and away from the food supply.
When you collect seeds from your plants make sure to label them with whom the parent plants were (where you got the seeds and the generation on the package you purchased) and what generation the new seeds are and if there were any unique characteristics in the child plants.
One big thing to remember when using Heirloom seeds is to not cross-pollinate different heirloom plants if you want to save the seeds – How to Save Heirloom Seeds. Grow just one type of pumpkin in your garden, not three in one area. Since bees are the pollinator of choice on squash plants, they go from one flower to the next. If they have the pollen from a sugar pumpkin on them and then go to a Jack O’ Lantern, you won’t have a sugar or a Jack, but a cross between the two in future generations. This could be very good, or incredibly gross. It depends! Are you willing to risk it?
Here is a great guide to companion planting plants, and what plants NOT to put next to each other in the garden to avoid cross pollination.
Heirloom seeds are a lot of fun to collect and grow and to experiment with how nature works! Here are some great heirloom seed companies you can shop from:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – Baker creek is one of the most popular heirloom seed companies out there. Their reputation for high quality GMO free, heirloom seeds is know all around. They are a great one stop shop for your seed needs.
Johnny’s Seeds – Johnny’s seeds is a 100% employee owned 100% satisfaction guaranteed company. They have a wonderful selection of seeds from fruits, vegitables, herbs tools & supplies and more. They also have a good amount of educational material on their site to help you learn more about what will grow best where you live.
Renee’s Garden – Renee’s provides wonderful, heirloom, organic, GMO free seeds for flowers, herbs, vegitables and fruits. They sent me some to try out and the sprouting ratio is wonderful. I especially love their pre-packaged bee, humming bird and butterfly gardens to bring the pollinators into your yard.
Southern Exposure Seeds – Southern Exposure Seed Exchange offers more than 700 varieties of vegetable, flower, herb, grain and cover crop seeds. They are a worker run co-op. Their website offers a great garden planner and information on their support for the anti-GMO lawsuit against Monsanto, always a plus.
Terrior Seeds – A Family owned and operated business that sells untreated, non-GMO, heirloom seeds. They have a neat membership program where you get a discount, and your membership fees go toward seed donations and garden education.
The Kusa Seed Society – The Kusa Seed Society believes the plants are the best teachers you can have when it comes to your garden! Check out their selection of grains and oily seeds.
Victory Seeds – Rare, open pollinated & heirloom garden seeds. I got a good amount of hard to find herbs and flowers here as well as some nice healthy composting red worms. Their website isn’t pretty but their offerings are great.
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