Yes, it’s that time of year to get your heirloom seeds out of the freezer and come on down to Pine Mountain Settlement School where we are hosting our annual seed swap. Expert seed saver extraordinaire Bill Best from the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center will be here from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm tomorrow Saturday, Mach 12th to swap and sell seeds from his collection of hundreds of varieties of heirloom beans and tomatoes originating in the Appalachian Mountains. Following the free lunch at 12:00 pm Bill will give a presentation about heirloom seeds and seed saving. His website http://www.heirlooms.org/ provides great information on heirlooms and wonderful descriptions of each variety that he has available for purchase.
In the process of talking to as many people about gardening and food production as I do, I have had several people ask; what are the advantages of growing heirloom varieties? Below I have included excerpts from an article I found in Mother Earth News that answers this question quite satisfactorily.
• Exceptional taste is the No. 1 reason many gardeners cite for choosing heirloom varieties.
“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 nonprofit organization 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.” Many heirloom vegetables have been saved for decades and even centuries because they are the best performers in home and market gardens. Ship-ability wasn’t a concern so flavor could take a front seat, and it did. What direct-to-market farmer would survive if his cucumbers didn’t taste as good as his neighbor’s? Backyard gardeners rarely cart their produce cross-town much less cross-country. Even today, small market farmers don’t usually transport their harvest in huge tractor trailers. There’s no need to plant veggies bred to be tough when you can plant heirloom vegetables that are tender, sweet, juicy and just plain delicious.
• Heirloom vegetables are likely to be more nutritious than newer varieties.
In addition to ship-ability, breeders and commercial growers have been steadily pushing for higher and higher yields. “But for home gardeners, a little difference in yield isn’t a big deal,” DeVault says. And even though hybrids may often out yield heirlooms, it turns out we’re now paying a hidden cost for this emphasis on higher yields. Recent research has revealed that in many cases, newer vegetables and grains are significantly less nutritious than heirlooms.
• Many gardeners prefer heirloom vegetables because they are open-pollinated, which means you can save your own seed to replant from year to year.
“Seeds saved from heirloom vegetables will produce plants that are true to type, unlike hybrid seeds. If you try to save seed from hybrids, you usually won’t get good results,” says Andrew Kaiser, manager at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Also, with heirloom vegetables you can choose what works best in your garden. If you save seeds from heirloom vegetables over several years, you can gradually select seeds from the plants that perform best in your local soil and climate. This will give you a seed strain that is more resistant to local pests and diseases. Plants are much more adaptable than most of us realize. “Take a nice, old variety that has a lot of redeeming qualities, and select what performs well in your garden,” DeVault says. “Save those seeds, and you can create your own locally adapted variety.”
• The fourth advantage of heirloom vegetables is that they are “less uniform” than hybrids, which means they often don’t ripen all at once.
Commercial growers love the uniformity of hybrids because they can pick the crop in one fell swoop. But for home gardeners, a gradual supply of fresh produce is usually preferable to the glut of the all-at-once harvest that many hybrids provide.
• In catalogs and on seed racks, heirloom open-pollinated vegetables are almost always less expensive than hybrids.
On top of that, if you save your own seeds, the price drops to zero for the heirlooms.
• Many heirlooms have wonderful stories of how they came to America.
In many cases, these heirloom vegetables have been grown for many centuries all around the world. What a great feeling — to be connected through tiny seeds to so many other gardeners from so long ago!