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?