When I started researching heirloom seeds years ago it was purely practical: I wanted seeds I could save and plant the next year.
I had no idea what an incredibly beautiful and colorful spectrum of vegetables exists.
Everything from Black tomatoes to purple carrots defy our modern expectations of what food is supposed to look like.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is my favorite source for information about seeds. The pictures on their website and in their catalogs are incredibly artistic.
Flipping through the pages of heritage vegetables is like looking at a living history exhibit. According to the company, the Black Coat Runner Bean pictured above dates, “as far back as the mid-1600s and first recorded by German botanist Michael Titus in his Catalogues Plantarum.”
Brad’s Atomic Grape Tomato won “Best of Show” at the 2017 National Heirloom Expo. The company’s inventory also includes seeds collected from all over the world.
If you want to get started growing heirloom crops and saving your own seeds, you’ll have to take a bit of a strategic approach.
Getting Started with Heirloom Seeds
Personally, I want a packet of almost every seed in the catalog. But, to get good results, you’ll want to keep certain factors in mind.
- Some seeds will be easier to save than others. I started with beans, peas, and tomatoes. It was fairly straight forward: let the beans and pea pods mature and dry on the vine. Cut ripe tomatoes open, scoop out the flesh with seeds and let them dry. Other plants, such as broccoli, only produce seeds on the second year plant.
- To maintain seed purity, you’ll need to keep varieties separate. For instance, if you have more than one type of tomato plants close together, you may get seeds that produce a plant that is a hybrid of the two varieties. (Of course, the result might be great! You just need to be aware that you must isolate the plants to maintain seed purity.)
- Be careful if you live near fields producing conventional crops. Saving pure corn seed, for example, can be difficult since pollen from conventional corn crops can travel long distances on the wind. In the United States, that means you have a high likelihood of having your corn pollinated by Monsanto-owned GMO crops. The purity of your seed will be compromised– and Monsanto will likely want a payment and inform you that it’s illegal to save seed “their” seed.
- Study a bit to learn the science behind seed saving. There are some general guidelines for things like how far apart to plant your cabbage and your broccoli. You can also learn how to put bags over the buds and fruit, such as corn, then manually pollinate it so the seed won’t be affected by surrounding crops. Check out The Heirloom Life Gardener (which also tells the story of Jere Gettle, who founded Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds). Also, check out information from Seed Savers Exchange.
- Consider trading seeds with other gardeners who share a passion for heirloom vegetables. Some national organizations, like the Seed Savers Exchanged mentioned above, exist. But you may also find a local seed bank in your community.
Do you have experience raising heirloom produce? We’d to have you share your experience and pictures! Send an email to Editor@HomesteadLarder.com, and we might just feature your garden on our “Your Stories” page.