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Gardening Question - Heirlooms?


Maggie Mae

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So what are heirloom varieties of seeds and why are they "better?"

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My understanding is that Heirloom plants are older versions that can still be found despite the fact that they are not grown in modern large scale agriculture. I think that in many cases (at least for fruits and veggies) they are considered to be better tasting that the modern hybrids. For example my dad talks about the red delicious apples they used to get when he was growing up (1940s and 50s) compared to the ones you find in the store now. The modern red delicious apples have been changed (I think hybridized but I'm not sure) so that they have tougher skins and won't bruise and spoil as easily during shipping. The downside is that they lost most of their flavor (in his opinion).

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Better tasting, more variety, and open pollinated so you can harvest seeds from mature plants. But some heirloom varieties are finicky and more prone to disease than modern hybrids. I grow a mixture of heirlooms and hybrids, but try to have a at least one heirloom variety of each main veggie we grow just to cut down on seed costs for next years garden.

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Some heirlooms have a lower yield than modern varieties, but that's not necessarily a bad thing if you don't want gluts. Modern F1 hybrids were originally designed for commercial growers so that all the produce would mature at the same time and could be sold in large quantities. In a garden situation it's often better to have varieties that don't all mature at once because no-one can use 20 cucumbers in a week. Having said that, I always grow modern varieties of some things like sweetcorn because the newer supersweet varieties are just way nicer than old-fasioned types.

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Heirloom varieties are varieties of plants or animals that your grandparents might have eaten. They aren't optimized for modern grocery practices, such as being shipped long distances, they are optimized for taste or for local growing conditions. Also, because they are by definition not hybrids, you can save the seeds and get the same variety the next year. (Well, for plants. Don't save turkey seeds, people!)

Not all heirloom varieties are better, for any value of the word. There's this one variety of tomato that is popular with sellers here that I cannot stand, it is mushy and tasteless and also ugly. Give me a hybrid big boy or sungold!

Some can also be more finicky to grow. Whatever you choose to get, make sure you know how to grow it in your area.

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My husband is a chef, and has worked with growers who use Native Seed Search- http://shop.nativeseeds.org/pages/seeds (not broken, because it's a public commercial site). Some of the crops that he's used have been great, others have been kind of blah. I've been especially impressed by beans, greens and squashes. Not so much with the corn or tomatoes.

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Not so much with the corn or tomatoes.

Not all heirloom tomatoes are unimpressive. I live every year for my green zebras. But tomatoes are more hit or miss all around the board, you know?

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So for Heirlooms, I'm thinking I would have the best luck for something specific to my climate then, if it's just a designation for seeds that haven't been altered.

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So for Heirlooms, I'm thinking I would have the best luck for something specific to my climate then, if it's just a designation for seeds that haven't been altered.

Yes, you would (that's always the case with seeds, heirloom or otherwise! You want them to match your climate, soil, and light conditions), but no, it's not what heirloom means. Many seeds that are not heirlooms are not "altered". They might be newer varieties, or hybrids. Heirlooms are specifically non hybrid varieties that have been around for a significant period of time. That does perforce mean that no GMO seeds can be heirlooms, but there are still many seeds which are neither heirloom nor modified in any way.

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