Are heirloom plants better for you?

Heirloom varieties may taste better or different, but heirloom plants generally produce about half the fruit with the same amount of fertilizer, water, and space. One reason for growing them is that the more diverse our selection of food plants, the lower the risk that new pathogens will destroy an entire crop. In general, traditional vegetables offer good flavor. Taste is subjective, but older varieties were generally grown for local consumption and for fresh consumption, says Shawn Wright, a horticultural specialist at the University of Kentucky.

However, many of the new hybrid varieties being developed today are bred to ensure shipment quality, yield and disease resistance, so flavor is not always the top priority. Viveka Neveln is the garden editor at BHG and a licensed horticulturist with extensive experience in gardening who gained more than 3 decades of practice and study. He has more than 20 years of experience writing and editing for both print and digital media.

Growing heirloom seeds

in your garden can literally bring the past to life.

These seeds have been stored and cultivated for decades or even centuries, so you could grow the same variety of plant that Thomas Jefferson had in his garden more than 200 years ago. While you may have heard of traditional tomatoes or other vegetables, you may not know that you can find seeds for heirloom varieties of many other plants, such as herbs and flowering annuals. Here's a look at what exactly heirloom seeds are and five reasons they deserve a place in your garden. Because relics are ancient, many of these seed varieties have interesting stories associated with them.

For example, the mallard “Black Watchman” can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson's garden in Monticello (and is mentioned in texts as early as 162). Thanks to gardeners passing on these seeds from generation to generation, this variety of mallard with almost black flowers can still be grown today. Plus, you have an interesting story to tell anyone who asks about this tall, eye-catching plant in your garden. Of course, relics aren't genetically modified, so if you're growing a heirloom plant in the garden, you might also be cultivating a bit of history, especially those that are quite rare and difficult to find.

Enter any agricultural market and you'll see a wide range of traditional vegetables for sale, often for a higher price than their hybrid cousins (especially when it comes to traditional tomatoes). Hybrid seeds are created by crossing two selected varieties, which sometimes results in vigorous plants that outperform relics. With the increasing demand for heirloom seeds, you'll find that it's not as difficult as before to obtain them. Finally, you have your heirloom seeds; these seeds are not altered in a laboratory or cross-pollinated for specific results.

So if you want to grow that strain at another time, you'll need to buy new seeds instead of growing the seeds you saved from that plant. When heirloom seeds are grown with the right methods and in the right environment, the result is a more nutritious product to feed your family. Interest in heirloom plants has flourished in recent years, and you may be interested in trying your hand at growing heirlooms in your own garden. It makes those heirloom seeds more special when you know the story and the stories that come with them.

All heirloom seeds are non-GMO (meaning genetically modified organisms, or plants whose DNA has been artificially changed, often with genes from unrelated species that they could not naturally cross with). Heirloom seeds come from open-pollinated plants that transmit similar characteristics and traits from the parent plant to the daughter plant. All heir plants are open pollinated, which means that the seeds produce the same characteristics as the parent plant from one year to the next. I have been using heirloom seeds for a few years now and when asked why, I often answer: “I don't know, I just prefer them.

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Erika Shipley
Erika Shipley

Subtly charming beer nerd. Extreme internet specialist. Devoted travel junkie. Proud coffee maven. Friendly problem solver.