So what’s with heirloom?

So let’s talk about HEIRLOOM. I started growing heirloom varieties of my favorite fruits and vegetables this year and I fell in love. Everything just felt, tasted and looked better. I swear my garden was fuller and greener this year than it ever has been before. Some might call that chance, but I call it heirloom seeds and a good soaker hose.

I asked a few skeptics why they doubted heirloom seeds and gardening. Here were their top questions they had, and here are my answers!

What does “heirloom” really mean anyway?
What does GMO mean?
What does Hybrid mean?
What’s so good about Heirloom plants?
Is it worth spending the extra .50 cents-1 dollar on each package?
What’s all the hype about?
Is production going to be higher or lower?
How do I even know that the seed I’m buying is actually heirloom?
What are the negative affects of GMO’s?
What are the negative affects of Hybrids?
Are heirloom plants harder to grow, will the average number of seeds grow better?
What’s the difference between organic and heirloom?


What does “heirloom” really mean anyway?
There are many definitions of heirloom, but generally it’s a type of fruit, flower, or vegetable that was being grown before WW2 era. Before WW2 big agriculture hadn’t taken over, so the demand to produce more, faster and bigger wasn’t an issue.

Ethne Clarke, editor of Organic Gardening magazine gave a perfect visual about what heirloom means. He said: “I think a lot of it has to do with the romance of history, growing something that perhaps grew in your grandmother’s garden or came from your native country. I just planted some peas that came from Ireland, they’re native to Ireland. My grandfather was an Irish farmer.

Heirloom seeds and plants are not hybrids and have not been genetically modified. When you plant heirloom seeds, you’re planting something that will work well in a natural ecosystem, that will give you usable seeds for next year, and that will give you the healthiest produce available.


What does GMO mean?
Short answer: It’s an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.

Long answer: GMO’s stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Scientist take any foods that can be changed at a gene level, and alter them for various reason. They take the little seed and genetically alter and change it so it can withstand all the chemicals and pesticides they are putting on it. They also alter it so it can do other things like repel certain bugs, make produce look bigger, and or stay on the market shelf for a whole lot longer than is normal. By doing so they risk  permanently changing the blue print of the plants. And with that they are affecting not only the soil but the nutrition of the plants, the health of the soil, and the ecosystem as a whole.


What does Hybrid mean?
A hybrid is a cross between two different plant varieties to get the best of each variety.


What’s so good about Heirloom Plants?
It’s the old school variety. Which means, they haven’t been genetically modified yet.

Tom Torgrimson said, “We say that with heirlooms, every seed has a story to tell. This variety was created somewhere by someone and was maintained over time, so there must be a reason. I think the most common reason is it was saved because this is a tomato somebody liked, and it was saved by a family.”

Here are the three different types of seeds a gardener or farmer might use:

  1. First Generation (F1) is a hybridized, patented, often sterile line of crop which can’t propagate further seasons on its own (that means you can’t save the seeds from your plants and plant them the next year).
  2. Genetically Modified (GM) seeds have been fiddled with in a lab to allow combinations of genes not possible through breeding — some lines of corn use information from cold-water fish to make themselves more frost-hardy, for example.
  3. Heirloom seeds are where it’s at. These varieties are allowed to pollinate naturally, with traits only selected for by generations of breeding. They might have been developed quickly in the last 50 years, or proudly tended and passed from generation to generation since the Civil War.

Original source


Is it worth spending the extra .50 cents-1 dollar on each package?
YES! Since heirloom varieties are open pollinated, you can save the seeds from your plants. So if you are careful all you need is to buy heirloom seeds once and you are set for a really long time, if not for life!


What’s all the hype about?
More and more people are starting to realize that the cleaner and more whole our food is, the healthier it is to eat. GMO’s have been found to increase all kinds of things you don’t want, including (but not limited to) the following:

  1. Allergies
  2. Toxins in the foods
  3. Contaminations between GMO’s and non-GMO’s
  4. Antibiotic resistance
  5. Changes in the nutrient levels of the food (in a bad way) (And this is just for corn!)
  6. Environmental damage along with the creation of the ‘super weed’.

Here are some other great links on environmental damage that has or could happen because of GMO’s: ISB News Report, Seed varieties disappearingNational Geographic’s Food Altered and Better Nutrition’s Say NO to GMO.


Is production going to be higher or lower?
I like what Rebsie of Daughter of the Soil said:

“When two dissimilar varieties are crossed, the result is a hybrid which will often be bigger, brighter, faster-growing or higher-yielding than either of its parents, which makes for a great selling point. But it’s a one-hit wonder. Subsequent generations don’t have the same vigour or uniformity, and the idea is that you don’t save seed from it, you just throw it away and buy some more. This is bad for the plants, bad for the garden and bad for you, but the seed companies make a packet out of it and gain increasing control of what we buy and grow.”

So to answer the question, growing heirloom might not give you as big of a yield as growing hybrid or GMO’s, but in the end it is worth losing a few tomatoes to grow a plant that is healthier for you and the soil. Also, when growing heirloom you will get the same type of plant every year after (using the seeds you collect) compared to hybrid varieties that may or may not grow the same after the first generation.

Ethne Clark, editor of Organic Magazine, said “The same reasons people are driven to conserve the rainforest, we need to think about conserving the biodiversity of plants that grow in our gardens. One of the best ways is growing heirloom varieties.”


How do I even know that the seed I’m buying is actually heirloom?
All companies that sell heirloom seeds are 100% heirloom, guaranteed. You will also find out the year after when you plant your harvested seeds.


What are the negative affects of GMO’s?
Scroll back up to the question ‘What’s all the hype about’ to find your answer.


What are the negative affects of Hybrids?
The biggest problem with growing hybrid is they don’t reproduce true in the second generation, making it near impossible to save your seeds. Making you rely on seed companies.

Dawn from Small Footprint Families said it best: “When the peasant farmers grew these new hybrids, they were indeed more productive, even though they required more fertilizer and water. But when they collected and saved the seed for replanting the next season—as they had done for generations and generations—none of it grew true to the parent crop, little food grew, and these poor farmers, having none of their open-pollenated traditional varieties left viable, had no choice but to go back to the big companies to purchase the hybrid seeds again for planting year after year.

U.S. companies like Cargill intentionally disrupted the traditional cycle of open-pollinated seed saving and self-sufficiency to essentially force entire nations to purchase their seeds, and the agricultural chemicals required to grow them.

Most of these poor subsistence farmers never had to pay for seed before, and could not afford the new hybrid seeds, or the new petrochemical fertilizers they required, and were forced to sell their farms and migrate to the cities for work. This is how the massive, infamous slums of India, Latin America, and other developing countries were created.

By the 1990s an estimated 95% of all farmers in the First World and 40% of all farmers in the Third World were using Green Revolution hybrid seeds, with the greatest use found in Asia, followed by Mexico and Latin America.

The world lost an estimated 75 percent of its food biodiversity, and control over seeds shifted from farming communities to a handful of multinational corporations.”


Are heirloom plants harder to grow? Will the seeds sprout as easily as GMO’s?
Heirloom seeds sprout and grow just as easily as hybrid or GMO seeds. That being said, because heirloom varieties haven’t been developed in science labs to withstand sprays and extreme weather conditions, heirloom seeds can be more vulnerable sometimes.

But that makes you a better gardener, a more natural gardener. You have to learn about the actual vegetable/fruit, like your grandparents and their parents did. You have to weed them, water them, and care for them, just how nature intended. Additionally, after harvesting, you can keep the seeds from your heirloom plants and plant them the next year without any problems. Good luck doing that with your GMO or hybrid plants!


What’s the difference between organic and heirloom?
Organic means living things grown with out pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Heirloom is just the description of the plant. So you can grow heirloom plants and still use pesticides and such.

WHEW. Long post. Hope that answered any of the questions my skeptics had. If anyone has anything else to add don’t be shy!

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5 thoughts on “So what’s with heirloom?

  1. Pingback: First Season… Success! | Back Yard Farming. In Phoenix!

  2. Pingback: Heirloom Seed Companies Database | New Jersey Health Federation

  3. Pingback: Seed Saving | aristonorganic

  4. Pingback: Weird-Looking Heirloom Vegetables: Why They’re Important | Recipes for a Healthy You

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