Old is New Again: Choosing Heirloom Seeds

This year, I took a different approach to choosing vegetable seeds for my garden. I decided to go almost entirely to heirloom or older variety vegetables. While hybrid seeds are known for their disease-resistance and large harvests, the people I know who plant heirloom seeds are just so darned enthusiastic about the taste of these vegetables.

So, this year I ordered seeds from two well-known purveyors of older varieties and heirlooms — Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, which I visited last summer, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds from Mansfield, Mo.  I also picked up some seeds from Botanical Interests at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. While not strictly heirloom, I’ve been very impressed by the quality of Botanical Interest seeds, many of which are older varieties, and I like the company’s community orientation.

Heirloom seeds are generally defined as seeds that were planted in earlier times (how early is open to some debate) but are not used in commercial agriculture now. Heirlooms tend to be open-pollinated varieties and many of them developed in specific regions and for specific climates. For instance, I’m planting ‘Chervena Chushka’ peppers, a Bulgarian variety of red peppers. While Bulgaria’s weather is mild and generally hot and dry in summer — not exactly what we get in Minnesota, I’m hoping for a decent crop of what is said to be a delicious pepper.

Good taste is one of the main arguments for heirlooms. The other main argument is that it is important to maintain seed, plant, and food diversity, both for food security and for overall health.  Face it, many children now grow up being introduced to only a handful of vegetables: lettuce, peas, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, and corn. Many of those vegetables are grown from just a few varieties that pack, ship and freeze well. And, a surprising amount of the modern U.S. diet is based on only two foods: corn and soybeans. So bring on the beets! And, the chard! The bumpy melons and strange-shaped squash — in food, different is good.

The one concern with heirloom varieties is that they are not as productive or reliable as hybrid varieties, though this of course depends on where you live, which seeds you choose, and how you grow them. I’m addressing that by planting a combination of vegetables I know will do well in my garden (Yellow Pear tomatoes, for example) and those that are new to me. I’m hoping for a large and delicious harvest.

I’m curious to find out if others plant heirlooms — and why or why not?

7 thoughts on “Old is New Again: Choosing Heirloom Seeds

  1. I planted mostly heirloom varieties last year, and with the humidity and rain in the Twin Cities, most of my tomatoes suffered interesting diseased deaths. This year I will plant a few hybrid tomatoes so that I won’t have such a sad failure again. I might not have had many tomatoes, but an heirloom variety that did stunningly well was Seed Savers’ Mini White Cucumber. I planted three of them, and they took over a surprising portion of the garden and produced heavily for almost two months. It was the first time I had planted cucumbers in my own garden, but after seeing other cucumbers previous years in my mother’s garden, I did not expect them to produce anywhere near as much as they did. Thankfully, the flavor was pleasantly mild, so even people who said they did not like cucumbers were happily eating them.

    I am just getting started gardening, but I enjoy growing varieties of veggies that are different from what everyone else is growing. Saving seeds is also fascinating to me, so I plan to plant mainly heirlooms again this year.

  2. I planted yellow pear last year. They are a neat tomato. We too are trying mostly heirlooms this year. I’m also scared about the production, we shall see.

  3. K — I’m not sure the diseases in your tomatoes last year were directly related to the heirloom varieties. I planted a mix of heirloom and hybrids and had a terrible year for tomatoes. Many experienced gardeners also had very poor years. Here’s hoping for a drier year this year. I’m also a recent convert to growing cucumbers and have two varieties on tap for next year — one for eating and a cornichon type for pickling.

  4. The heirloom tomatoes I grew in large containers last year actually did pretty well. I think it’s easier to control their environment in pots, and they’re growing in a fresh batch of container mix, so that helps. This year I’m going for a personal record by starting fifty different varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

  5. Tom — Because of all the disease problems I had last year, I am going to grow tomatoes in pots this year, too. But I’m only growing about seven varieties.

  6. The real advantage to using heirlooms is that you can save your own seeds now from the individual plants that do best in your garden. In this way you can take the best of this year’s garden into next year. You will never have to start over again. You can find online seed saving instructions on the site of this 20 year-old non-profit:

  7. I’ve been growing heirloom tomatoes for a while. That is I guess you would call them heirloom. They are tomatoes that have been propagated for generations in this area and I got the seeds “over the garden fence” and now propagate them myself. However, this year I want to do a direct comparison and will be planting my own heirloom varieties in addition to some I ordered from am heirloom seed place, and also to a widely praised hybrid. I’m very curious as to the results and hope it won’t be another terrible tomato year, like last year was.

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