Heirloom seeds are essentially old fashioned, traditional, openly-pollinated seeds.
They are genetically diverse and have usually been around for a very long time. They are not generally used in modern large scale farming.
They often tend to provide a more prolonged yield over a longer growing period and a generally better, tastier crop. They can also be more adaptable to different soil types.
They are grown by many to preserve a particular type of plant for future generations and are often the seed of choice for traditional and organic growers. There is also motivation to increase the gene pool of a particular species of plant.
With these seeds, there are usually tens of thousands of varieties of each species of plant, compared to just a few varieties of commercial F1 hybrid seeds. These are the main type of seeds most large scale agriculture use these days.
The wide range of heirloom varieties ensures that if there is a crop failure of one particular variety, the other varieties will still prevail.
Today, heirlooms are becoming more and more sought after as people start to wake up to the realities of how much our farmers are now relying on just a small variety of hybrid seeds to maintain our world food supplies.
You only need to look up the Irish potato famine in the 1840s to get a glimpse of the potential dangers of working within such narrow parameters.
The use of F1 Hybrid seeds in modern farming is all well and good in the short term, but many people claim that this highly profitable business is also bringing about the worldwide loss of genetic seed diversity, which could ultimately lead to a global food catastrophe far beyond anything we could imagine.
And now with the introduction of bioengineered GM seeds contaminating the world’s seed stocks on a massive scale, some of which have reportedly been spliced with animal genes to make them more weather/pest resistant. There has never been a more important time to consider working with and using heirloom seeds.
They are a popular choice of seed, along with the regular non-hybrid seed, used and stored by proponents of survival gardening.
Growing Heirlooms – Common mistakes
If you do opt to use heirloom seed, there are a couple of golden rules you need to stick to. The point of them is to be able to grow the same crop each year using seeds collected from the previous year’s crop.
They are often handed down through generations of families like antiques. This is fantastic, but with some types of these seeds, you have to be careful about cross-pollination. If you grow more than a single variety of the same vegetable in the same area, there is a possibility that the different varieties could cross-pollinate and create a new hybrid version of the original.
Peppers and aubergines are a prime example of where this can happen easily.
More for your money?
When buying heirlooms, you also tend to get a lot more for your money. F1 hybrid seeds tend to be small packet sizes for prices that often seem unjustified. On the other hand, many of the Heirloom suppliers tend to give you a lot more seeds for less money. Most of the good suppliers work on the principle that the seeds do not last for more than a few years, so if they have a good supply, they would rather be generous with the portions to the customer than hold them back and waste them.
Regular non-hybrid seeds
We feel a need to point out here that last year (2010) we grew mostly heirloom seeds, more as an experiment than anything else. We had a lot of successes but also a few failures, plus some mediocre results.
This year (2011) I will be working with regular non-hybrid seeds. You can still save seeds from non-hybrid seeds, and many of the varieties available on the market today have been developed to give better yields and offer better resilience to disease than many of the heirlooms.