Heirloom Seeds, and Why You Should Plant Them

Happy New Year, y’all! We’re off to a crazy start, it appears, so before I begin today’s post, a few words of encouragement. In times of crisis and fear, I like to remember to do the following things:

  1. Channel Fred Rogers and “look for the helpers.” Look for the people that are attempting to make things better, that are aiding the hurt and helping to make the negative into positive. Most importantly, do what you can to be one of those helpers, and support your fellow humans in doing good, while condemning those that hurt others and perpetuate racism and other forms of discrimination.
  2. Focus on what you can do. A little repetitive, but seriously: there’s a lot out of our direct control, happening far away from many of us, but there are plenty of things in your control, as well. You can always control your reactions and actions, you can choose what to say and how to speak out, and you can focus on the little ways to help make a more just, vibrant world for everyone.
  3. Stay off of Facebook. Ironic, I know, for promoting my blog, but there are so many other, better ways to get your (real) news, connect with people, and just…stay sane. Close that browser window, breathe, and find something more productive to do and read.

Right now, I’m focusing on planning for the future in our homestead, as well as what to teach our future child(ren) about reacting and acting in times of crisis, be it political, environmental, or social. I’ll also continue to speak out against blatant injustice and the chaos caused by injustice.

For this post (which I began writing a few days ago), I’m focusing on the homestead, and one of our growing practices: planting and saving heirloom seeds. So, without further ado…

Heirloom Seeds and Seedlings

We’ve been perusing a seed catalog we received in the mail from Sow True Seed these past couple of weeks. Sow True Seed is a cool local seed company that specializes in open-pollinated, heirloom, and organic seed varieties, so we’re both happy to support growing heirloom foods, as well as local business.

But you may be asking yourself (as I asked myself just this week, and throughout these few years of suburban homesteading): what, exactly, is an heirloom plant, or an open-pollinated plant, and how are they different from conventional (often hybrid or GMO) produce I might find at the grocery store or in my restaurant meal? And why is using heirloom varieties important to us and our family?

Heirlooms, for Starters

Firstly, the term “heirloom” is not a regulated term. It is, however, often attributed to seeds and varieties of plants that have been cultivated and saved via seeds for at least 40 years. This means that if you’re trying to get heirloom varieties, you’ll need to ask the provider what they mean, or find the definition in their literature. 

“Open-pollinated” means that the plants can be pollinated and cultivated by the winds and pollinators (bees, butterflies, and the like) of your area, rather than hand- or machine-pollinated, or otherwise modified. It also means that, barring any cross-pollination from your own or neighbor’s plants, you can save the seeds from an open-pollinated variety of produce to use for the next growing season.

So many saved sunflower seeds.

More on why heirlooms are cooler than hybrids and GMOs later on.

What’s a Hybrid Plant?

“Hybrid” refers to plants that have been cross-pollinated with another variety of the same plant to make a new plant that carries desired characteristics from both plants. So, for example, if you wanted a tomato that was sweet and tasty, but also grew faster than a particular heirloom variety, you’d find two varieties of tomatoes with these differing characteristics: one that was tasty, and one that grew fast. You’d then allow them to cross-pollinate and produce hybrid seeds.

Hybrids are cool in some ways. By taking desirable characteristics from more than one plant, you may find yourself with some interesting new flavors. 

One way I’ve experienced a home-hybrid plant was in banana peppers planted next to jalapenos. The resulting banana peppers later on were almost unbearably spicy, but still retained their inherent banana pepper flavor. Mmmm. Since we don’t try to save seeds from our peppers, we often plant sweet peppers next to hots so everything is spicy. Whee! Sorry not sorry.

Mmmm, spicy!

Hybrid seeds can also produce plants that are hardier, or more resistant to particular pests and weather phenomena, depending on what you hybridize. I also learned just this week that just about any fruit sapling or bramble you purchase from a nursery is actually a grafted hybrid! Doing so makes the tree or bramble more likely to grow in your soil, because it’s grafted to a hardier tree bark. Neato!

So what’s the downside? Hybrid seeds and plant varieties don’t last as long, at least not without the extra work of continuing to hybridize every year, as heirloom varieties. This means that without intervention, you can’t save the seeds of hybrid plants and expect the same results, year after year – the plant eventually reverts to one of the parent varieties, so your tasty and early tomato from last year might just be tasty, or might just be early, the next year, or the year after.

Hybrid seeds may also require more water and more soil/fertilizer to be successful than an heirloom variety, but this may be attributed to higher fruit and vegetable yields. It all depends on what you’re going for, and how much work and materials you’re wanting to use.

We’ve used both heirloom and hybrid seeds on our homestead, most notably with our grafted berry bushes and (hopefully) soon-to-be fruit trees. But we still tend towards heirloom seeds and plants. Again, more on why later on.

GMO Seeds and Crops

Now, let’s talk GMO (genetically-modified organisms) seeds and plants. Many of the seed and plant varieties you can buy at a commercial nursery or farm store are GMO seeds, some labeled, and many not.

Firstly, a definition: GMO seeds and plants are, well, genetically modified. That is, they have specific genes added to them to make them more resistant to disease and pests. This is similar to hybridization, but on a much faster (as in, one generation) scale. Humans have been modifying plants to produce better yields and bigger, better versions of foods (notably, corn) for hundreds of years, although not necessarily in a laboratory setting.

The GMO debate is highly contentious, with both positive and negative claims. However, we try to avoid commercially-produced GMO plants and seeds on our homestead, and encourage others to do so. More on that in a moment.

Am I here to utterly demonize GMO plants into oblivion? No. I accept that some varieties of wheat and other crops have helped to feed otherwise starving communities, especially in the developing world. GMO crops tend to have higher yields than heirloom varieties, which can feed more people at a time. Modifying certain crops to contain needed vitamins in an otherwise vitamin-deficient area is also a good use of genetic modification.

 So, why do we avoid GMO products and seeds?

People have more often exploited other people, communities, and the environment for the sake of the profit that comes with much GMO engineering and sale, than used the science for good. Supporting and buying GMO wheat, corn, soy, and its byproducts (which, if you’re buying commercially-produced and processed foods, you’re more likely than not consuming GMOs) supports unsustainable and harmful farming practices, such as overuse of harmful pesticides, monocropping, and exploitation of farmers. Not cool.

Pesticides used to sustain GMO crops, such as glyphosate (AKA RoundUp – seriously, quit using this in your yard), are linked with death to pollinator populations, proliferation of superweeds and superpests, and possible cancer development, antibiotic resistance, and other health problems in humans (still being researched). And whether or not a farmer is using GMO seeds or glyphosate, the effects from farmers who do use them pass on to everyone via consumption, wind, soil, and other environmental factors. Nope.

More on the dangers of monocropping and farmer exploitation in the next section.

There is a lot of good literature on the subject that explains this in more and better detail, with more footnotes and proper sourcing. I always recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan as a starting point for anyone looking to research the history and effects of our current industrial food system. Otherwise, do your research using sources written with proper citations, and that aren’t funded by government subsidies or corporations, if you want a fair view of the debate.

Why Heirloom Seeds?

Heirloom black radish, the most metal of all radishes!

So. Ahem. Back to heirloom seeds. Why heirloom varieties, versus hybrid and GMO?

  1. Heirlooms taste good. Heirloom crops are, first and foremost, bred for flavor. GMO and hybrid crops are often bred for pesticide resistance, weather hardiness, and speedy, prolific growth, with flavor near the bottom of the list. I’d rather get a few delicious Cherokee Purple tomatoes that last a few days, than a hundred flavorless “vine-ripened” red baseballs that last for a month.
  2. Heirlooms tend to have longer growing periods than hybrids. Wait, heirlooms take longer to grow? Many do, but this is actually an upside. A longer growing period means the edible parts (fruits and the like) have time to develop better nutrition (e.g., absorbing more vitamins from the soil and sun, etc.). But for more practical reasons, a longer growing period means that as a homesteader, I’m not inundated with literal bushels of crops at a time, unless I choose to plant that much. Homesteaders are better able to keep up with crops for cooking and preservation. Did I mention it’ll all taste better, too?
  3. Heirlooms are open-pollinated. I don’t have to do anything to get my seeds to grow, besides the normal weeding, watering, and providing good soil that comes with good gardening practices. The wind and the pollinators do the rest as far as making sure my heirlooms fruit.
  4. You can save seeds from heirloom varieties. This goes hand-in-hand with open pollination: heirloom varieties “breed true,” meaning if you save the seeds, you’ll get the same characteristics year after year. I can do this without fear of getting a crappy version of a hybrid, or, at worst, infringing on copyright violations for saving GMO seeds.
  5. Heirlooms are often bred to resist pests and crop diseases. GMOs and hybrids are often touted for these abilities, but heirloom varieties are bred for these reasons, as well. Hybrids and GMOs are often bred to be somewhat hardy for larger areas, but may not do as well in your garden as someone in another state or zone. The added bonus for heirlooms is that you can make a plant particularly hardy for your specific garden and growing area. By saving and planting the best of your heirloom seeds (the plants that have the longest growing periods, resist that danged drought or rain, and produce the tastiest fruits), you contribute to strengthening heirloom crops.
  6. Heirlooms preserve history. They’ve been around the block. You may have heirloom varieties of plants passed down in your family (I wish I did!). Otherwise, you can get and preserve seeds for plants eaten by generations hundreds of years before ours. Hell yes I want to eat candy roaster squash cultivated by native peoples, and continue that tradition!
  7. Planting heirlooms encourages crop diversity. Remember the Irish potato famine? The Dust Bowl? Yeah, me neither, except in history class, and I’d like to keep it that way. However, most of the crops grown in the United States are of only very few varieties (monocropping), which contributes to soil loss, soil weakening (nutrient loss), overuse of chemical fertilizer (which does not replace soil loss), and loss of valuable plant and animal life that would thrive in a more diverse ecosystem. Planting only one variety of a few crops means that a particular pestilence (disease, pest, or weather phenomena) could knock out thousands of acres of that monocrop, leaving both farmers and consumers stranded and possibly starved. Planting different varieties of heirloom crops, and rotating the crops on the land, discourages such blights, keeps nutrients in the soil, and prevents the overuse of commercial fertilizers and pesticides.
  8. Heirlooms encourage farmer independence. Planting GMO and hybrid crops may seem more economically sound at first: GMO crops grow quickly, have high yields, and are already purchased with government subsidies and by corporations. But in order for farmers to grow these crops, they must continue to purchase copyrighted GMO seeds, at the mercy of the corporations that create them, and are encouraged to plant only those crops for profit, year after year. Planting a variety of heirloom seeds not only keeps farmers out of the seed-buying cycle (since they can save the seeds), but encourages healthy environmental practices and allows the small farmers and the consumers, not the corporations, to decide what to grow and sell.

Where Can I Get Heirloom Seeds?

Thankfully, it’s much easier today to get heirloom seeds than ever before. We’re lucky around here to have several options, including the aforementioned Sow True Seed, as well as the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We can get these seeds either directly from the producers, or at local gardening stores.

To find seeds in your area, you can research local seed exchanges (there are large ones, like the Southern Exposure, as well as small gatherings of farmers and homesteaders who save and exchange seeds), ask someone at your local independent gardening supply store, and/or request catalogs from heirloom seed companies.

I’ll be sure to let you know what cool stuff we have planned for our homestead garden this year, so stay tuned. Until then, happy homesteading, and cheers to 2021!

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