Heirloom seeds are popular with home gardeners, but what exactly is an heirloom seed? The true definition , but most experts classify an heirloom variety as one that is open-pollinated and has been in cultivation for at least fifty years. In my own vegetable garden, many of our favorite crops are heirloom varieties like Cherokee Purple tomato, Fish pepper, Lemon cucumber, and Dragon’s Tongue bean. Read on to learn more about heirloom seeds and why they make such great garden plants.
Types of garden seeds
There are two main types of seeds grown in home gardens: heirloom seeds and hybrid seeds. They each have their advantages Hybrids, for example may be more than heirlooms, but heirloom varieties often have better flavors.
The term ‘heirloom’ or ‘heritage’ is often used to describe seed varieties, but what does it really mean? As noted above, most experts define heirloom seeds as those that are open-pollinated and have been in cultivation for at least fifty years, although some prefer to classify heirlooms as those grown. Open-pollinated plants produce seeds that breed ‘true to type’. That means when you save and then plant the seeds of an open-pollinated variety, you’ll end up with a plant that is very similar to the original parent plant. If you plant seeds from a tomato you grew in your garden, you’ll end up with another tomato plant.
For open-pollinated, heirloom vegetables that are self-pollinating like beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce, it’s easy to collect the seeds once they’ve dried . However, some types of open-pollinated crops, like cucumbers and squash, can cross pollinate if more than one variety is grown. If you want to save seeds from these vegetables, you’ll need to make sure cross pollination doesn’t occur. To do that, you can
1) grow one variety each season
2) isolate different varieties by spacing them very far apart or
3) use insect barrier fabrics to prevent bees from moving pollen between varieties.
Hybrid seeds are the product of two different but compatible plants that are crossed by breeders to create a new variety. The new variety, often labelled an has characteristics from each parent with the goal of including improved traits like early maturity,improved vigor, or a larger yield. Popular hybrid vegetable varieties include Sungold tomatoes, Everleaf basil, and Just Sweet pepper.
heirloom seeds to grow in your vegetable garden
There are thousands of heirloom varieties available through seed companies and as you select seeds to grow don’t forget to attention to information like days to maturity, plant size. Days to maturity is very important as northern gardeners may not have time to ripen long season crops like late maturing heirloom tomatoes, tomatillos, or melons. When I first read about the heirloom watermelon, Moon and Stars I was so excited to grow it. I didn’t pay attention to the days to maturity information listed in the seed catalog and it proved to need a longer, warmer season than my garden could provide. Now, I grow earlier maturing watermelon like Sugar Baby. Learn more about many of my favorite heirloom varieties in my award-winning book, Veggie Garden Remix.
1) Cherokee Purple tomato – This wonderful heirloom variety was introduced to gardeners by Craig LeHoullier, the author of Epic Tomatoes. The large fruits have deep burgundy-purple skin and a complex, sweet flavor that can’t be matched by any supermarket tomato! The seeds landed in LeHoullier’s hands thirty years ago when a letter arrived.
2) Lemon cucumber – Twenty-five years ago, I read the description for Lemon cucumber in a seed catalog and was so intrigued I ordered a packet. This was my introduction into growing heirloom seeds and we loved this unique variety so much that we still grow it every year. Lemon cucumber fruits are rounded and best harvested when they’re two to three inches across and pale green in color. They mature to a bright yellow (like a lemon) but at that point, they’re quite seedy so harvest when immature.
4) Chioggia Guardsmark beet – This beautiful beet is traced back to Chioggia, is often called the ‘candy striped’ beet for its unique interior rings of pink and white. Beets are quick to grow and Chioggia is ready to pull about two months from seeding. Enjoy the sweet, earthy roots as well as the deep green tops.