Welcome to this post! I hope you find it useful. Please add your thoughts down below in the “comments” section.
Welcome to this post! I hope you find it useful. Please add your thoughts down below in the “comments” section.

Heirloom Seeds: A Quick Introduction

“What are heirloom seeds?” “Are heirloom seeds better than hybrid seeds?” “Why should I get heirloom seeds?”  “Are there reasons not to use heirloom seeds?” These are just some of the questions that people ask when they’re first learning about gardening and growing their own food. In this post, we’ll tackle the first three questions, and introduce the fourth, which itself will be the subject in another post.

I have to warn you.  We will touch on botany and genetics.  I studied botany in college and genetics here and there.  Luckily for all of us, though, you don’t have to be a scientist to understand how a certain type of seed benefits you.  I’ll break it down as simply as I can and avoid the vast majority of technical terms and jargon.  This is a quick, simple introduction and we don’t need to get too deep into the science.  So let’s get started!

What are Heirloom Seeds?

Heirloom seeds are generally defined as a variety that has been around for at least 50 years, are “open pollinated,” meaning they are pollinated by insects or the wind, and are very stable in their characteristics from one generation to the next. Often heirlooms have developed over many decades by one family that improves the variety each year by saving seeds from only the best performing plants. Thus, an heirloom seed source local to you may produce plants that do better in your state than a strain (or line) of the same heirloom that was grown across the country.

The two biggest, provable, benefits to heirloom varieties are seed saving, and taste.  With heirlooms you can save the seeds (known as “seed saving”) and be confident that the seeds will grow true to the variety next year. At the extreme, you could buy one packet of heirloom seeds and never buy another of that variety because you will be your own supplier.  The second benefit is taste. Most people agree that heirloom varieties just taste better. Significantly better.  I could go on for pages about the taste of heirloom tomatoes!

What are Hybrid Seeds?

A person creates a hybrid by cross pollinating two different varieties, hoping that the resulting plant will have the best qualities of both of the parents.  That’s it.  One variety may have a higher yield; another variety may resist disease.  Although many people confuse the two, hybrids are not “GMO.” While some hybrids are sterile, others will generally not breed true from seed; the seeds are only reliable in the first generation.  So with hybrid plants, you have to keep buying the seeds year after year.

Hybrids can offer a number of benefits, though, disease resistance and yield being two of the more important.  

How are Heirloom Seeds better than “Regular” or Hybrid Seeds?

In simple terms, if you collect seeds from a hybrid plant to use next season, the seeds are not likely to grow true to the hybrid.  You may get a completely different plant from what you expected.  With an heirloom variety, you can collect the seeds and grow them next year knowing that they will grow true to form.  Heirloom seeds, on the other hand are a reliable way of perpetuating your seed supply.  Heirloom varieties often have better taste.

How Are Hybrid Seeds Better than Heirloom Seeds?

Hybrids can be (depending on the variety) more disease resistant.  Healthier plants means higher yield per unit of land area.  If you have a small garden, you may want the additional yield that some hybrids offer.  Also, if you intensively garden, putting plants closer together than a traditional wide-row garden, there is less airflow between plants and more chance for fungus, pests, and other disease, to spread from plant to plant.  The potential resistance of some hybrids may be necessary.

Hybrids may be beneficial or even necessary for your family’s food supply. If you’re gardening for self-sufficiency, subsistence (survival), running a victory garden, you need to ensure that you will have enough yield.  That is an important factor.  How do you explain to your child the philosophical stance against hybrids when her stomach aches from hunger?  

If Hybrids are so good, Why would I ever want to use Heirloom varieties?

I view the debate between hybrids and heirlooms as being counterproductive to the point of being stupid.  Seriously.  Nowadays, people try to polarize everything.  There is a place for both hybrids and heirlooms.  In my garden, I am about 50% self-sufficient and this season I plan to raise that number to over 75%.  I’m doing that mostly with heirloom seeds.  I choose heirloom varieties to allow me to perpetuate my seed supply through seed saving.

My heirloom tomatoes, however, I grow purely for the taste.  I refuse to eat tomatoes from the grocery store.  That being said, however, a good hybrid beefsteak can be a good addition to the garden.

As I mentioned, heirlooms comprise about 95% of my seeds.  It is all a matter of personal choice and you have to do what is best for you. If you are a beginner gardener, watch for varieties that are easy to grow. You want to maximize your successes in the beginning and then you can move on from there.  By the way, if you are a beginning gardener, congratulations on taking that step!

Where can I buy heirloom seeds?

The following is an alphabetical list of sources of heirloom seeds, as well as other plants and starts.  I haven’t used them all so I definitely cannot say that I recommend every supplier on this list.  On the other hand, there is no supplier on the list that I would not recommend — the one’s I don’t know, I simply don’t know.  Okay?

If you have another source, please feel free to mention it in a comment and I’ll add it to the chart!

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