Among food and garden lovers alike, the current buzzword for value is heirloom, a very good description of open-pollinated vegetable seeds. Unlike hybrids, heirlooms can be saved year after year, and although we always think of the word as extending toward the past, it’s just as relevant to the future: heirlooms aren’t just what our great-grandparents grew, they are also the varieties we can leave to our great-grandchildren.
Heirlooms are most famous for offering great flavor and for enabling the gardener to “grow your own” from start to finish. But they offer a lot more than freedom from the need to buy seed every year.
Adaptability, for instance. Heirlooms are the special province of individuals and of small, regional seed companies, who do not need to sell zillions of packets in order to make a profit; and that means they tend to be better attuned to specific local conditions (drought in the Southwest, humidity in the Southeast, cold in the North) than “one size fits all” hybrids.
Hybrids are created through carefully controlled parentage, and as a result they are uniform. Every plant will be about the same size, and it will bear its fruit in the same narrow time frame. These characteristics are important to the mechanized operations of commercial growers, but they don’t do much for home gardeners.
And though hybrid varieties are often disease resistant, they are identically so. If a disease strikes that they cannot resist, every single plant will suffer.
Heirlooms, on the other hand, are individuals. Even when they are grown from seeds that came in the same packet, each plant is subtly different from every other. They grow and ripen unevenly, so you get a longer harvest period. And they are unevenly vulnerable to diseases. When trouble strikes, some plants will no doubt be afflicted, but others may come through.
All this is not to say there’s no place for hybrids, but hybrids are not in danger. It’s heirlooms that rely on home gardeners for their continued survival, heirlooms that offer independence, and heirlooms that give gardeners a chance to do their part for the preservation of genetic diversity.
To learn more, and to gain access to a huge assortment of delicious possibilities, consul the Garden Seed Inventory, available from Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101; (563) 382-5990; http://www.seedsavers.org. It explains, eloquently, why heirlooms are important. And it is the source of sources, listing very nearly all the open-pollinated (nonhybrid) vegetable seeds available commercially in the United States, along with the names and addresses of the companies that supply them.
Within OCMGA, we have a dedicated group of members working with Seed Savers — watch this blog for an article about their efforts.