heirloom-variety flowers and food
Growing Heirloom-Variety Flowers and Food
When it comes to family heirlooms, you might picture a grandfather clock or a full set of china. But not all heirlooms are fit for the parlor—especially these ones, which have gone to, well, seed. While there is no set definition, it’s generally agreed that heirloom plants are old varieties that have been passed down generationally via seeds and have been cultivated for at least fifty years.
Heirloom varieties differ from hybrids in several ways. With hybrid seeds, humans intervene in the pollination process by crossbreeding two or more plants to bring out the most favorable traits, like drought resistance or higher yields. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning they rely on nature for the process, or are self-pollinated, which means pollen transfer happens from flower to flower of the same plant. Heirloom seeds gain desirable traits, like high yields or pest resistance, over the course of many years and through careful cultivation by gardeners.
One benefit of heirloom seeds over hybrid is that they can be saved from year to year and will produce the same plant every time they are planted. Seeds saved from hybrid plants may be sterile or may take on more traits from one of the parent plants, so results are less reliable long term.
Heirloom seeds are often handed down within families or shared with neighbors. Because of this, heirloom varieties tend to be regional because they work well in a particular climate or soil type; however, these seeds can also be purchased from seed companies. Because the definition of heirloom is open to interpretation, it’s best to research any company before making a purchase. Choose a seed company that matches your own gardening and food production values. For example, if it is important to you, does the company adhere to the Safe Seed Pledge (a pledge to foster safe and genetically stable food sources)? Does the company offer organic seeds? Do they avoid treating seeds with insecticides or pesticides?
Search online for heirloom seed companies and you’ll find dozens of results, including the following. Seed Savers Exchange (Iowa), seedsavers.org. Around since 1975, this organization began as a way for gardeners to preserve and share heirloom seeds. They offer a variety of vegetable, herb, and flower seeds. West Coast Seeds (British Columbia), westcoastseeds.com. Founded in 1983, this company sells more than 1,000 varieties of heirloom and hybrid seeds. Search heirloom seeds to find their full collection of old-variety vegetables and flowers.
High Mowing Seeds (Vermont), highmowingseeds.com. Begun in 1996, this company focuses on organic seeds and maintains high standards for seed testing and trials. MIgardener (Michigan), migardener.com. This family-owned organization, in business since 2011, sells only heirloom seeds. They run a streamlined organization to sell their seeds quite cheaply, many for $2 per pack. Clear Creek Seeds (Oklahoma), clearcreekseeds.com. Started in 2010, this company focuses on open-pollinated, non-GMO heirloom vegetable seeds, but offers herb and flower seeds too.
/ Written by Ronda Swaney. Photography by valentinrussanov/E+/Getty Images, mkos83/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Pass It On.
Want to save and share your heirloom seeds with others? If you’re new to seed saving, start with plants that are simple to collect from like peppers, beans, and flowers with seedpods like marigolds. Seed harvesting and storage vary by plant type, so search for specific directions to save other seed types. Here’s how to save and share these get-started seeds.
Peppers: Remove the seeds from a ripe pepper, discarding any that are damaged or discolored. Dry on a paper towel in a warm spot away from sunlight. Flip seeds at least once to ensure even drying on both sides. After a week, store the dried seeds in a plastic bag or container in a cool dry spot (about 35 to 50 degrees F) like your refrigerator.
Beans: Allow a few bean pods to go to seed on your plant stalks. Once the pods have dried on the vine, remove the pods and spread them in a single layer on paper towels to dry further. Once completely dry and brittle, shell and store the beans. Glass jars are great storage options for this. Keep in a cool place (about 35 to 42 degrees F).
Marigolds: Wait until the bloom has died and the seed pod turns brown. Remove the seedpod from the stem. Discard any remaining bloom and the pod itself to reveal the seeds. Spread seeds on a paper towel and dry for about a week. Then store in a paper envelope.