Green Living

The Importance of Heirloom Vegetables

Save endangered crops for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.

The Importance of Heirloom Vegetables
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I’M AN AVID gardener, but I’ve always been a little in awe of seeds. They seem mysterious and fragile and like too much work—so I’ve always grown vegetables from plantings. But after a summer of bland hybrid produce and hearing my brother Herb rave about his heirloom varieties grown from seed, I decided to reconsider. I did some preliminary research and learned that for a novice like me, Brandywine tomatoes are the easiest species to grow.

They require a little extra TLC, and you have to be vigilant about bugs since this variety was bred for taste not pest resistance. But the effort is worth it, knowing I’m preserving a delicious piece of cultural history, as valuable as prized antiques passed down through the generations. In fact, that’s how heirloom seeds survive: Gardeners (both amateurs and professionals) keep them alive from one generation to the next.

Heirloom seeds are rare because most commercial seed producers select seeds for genetic traits that lend themselves to mass production—such as better storage quality and uniformity. Traits that have to do with taste and nutrition often get lost in the process—leading to increasingly fewer varieties of vegetables. These seeds are like threads of a story. Once we stop telling it, it’s lost forever. This summer, when my little Brandywine tomato seedlings poke through, I’ll be picking up the thread of a story started in 1889, when Brandywines first appeared in seed catalogs. To try it yourself, follow these tips:

Buy open-pollinated, not hybrid seeds. “A hybrid, a cross between two plants, is bigger and better than either parent in some species,” says Shanyn Siegel, collection curator at Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org), a company that sells heirloom seeds. But if you try to save hybrid seeds, you won’t get the same result the following year, so you have to buy new hybrid seeds annually. By contrast, heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning that traits like size, shape, color, and taste are fixed—and you can save their seeds forever.

Sow at the right time. You can grow some vegetables (lettuce and most other greens, beans, carrots, squash, and peas) from seed directly into the ground outside after the chance of frost has passed. For more tender seeds (tomatoes, peppers, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and eggplant), start them inside in little pots four to eight weeks before the last frost. (If you’re not sure of your frost-free date, check with your local extension office.) Keep seedlings moist and in your sunniest window, or under artificial light.

Save your seeds. After your tomato plants have produced fruit, scoop out the seeds, let them ferment for two to three days in a lidless glass or plastic container, rinse and dry them thoroughly, and store in a cool, dry place like your basement until spring. For instructions about saving seeds from other types of produce, visit seedsavers.org.