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What Are Heirloom Seeds, and Should You Plant Some in Your Garden?

Heirloom tomato plant garden.

With people staying at home more over the last few years, gardening has really boomed. If you’re planning a spring garden, you might see packs of “heirloom seeds” at the store and online, but what exactly are they?

Heirloom seeds or plants are buzzwords that are worth knowing if you’re getting into gardening. Even if you decide not to grow them, learning about them will help you understand a bit more about what you are growing. So, let’s find out what heirloom seeds are, and if they’re right for your garden.

The Basics About Heirloom Seeds

Two shades of pink hollyhock plants in a home garden.

An heirloom seed is any seed that’s existed for at least 50 years or pre-World War II, depending on who you ask. Basically, they’re seeds (and the resulting plants) that have been grown with minimal changes for a long time.

For example, if you grow an ordinary hollyhock, it likely won’t look too much like a hollyhock that was grown decades ago. However, if you grow an heirloom hollyhock, it will look the same as one grown 50 years ago or more!

To count as an heirloom, plants have to be open-pollinated—meaning pollinated through natural methods, like insects—and produce seeds that grow the same as the parent plant. So, as the seeds get passed down year after year, the plants grown from them remain the same.

Many heirloom plants look and taste very different from the fare you’d find at the grocery store. Grocery store produce usually has a uniform flavor and appearance in varieties people can easily recognize.

Heirloom plants, on the other hand, come in a range of colors, flavors, and shapes that make them really fun to grow. While many people associate heirloom seeds with vegetables, you can also grow heirloom flowers or fruits.

You can shop all kinds of heirloom seeds online and the options are virtually endless. Even better, they cost about the same as any other kind of seed.

Other Types of Seeds

Heirlooms are an alternative to the two most common types of seeds and plants:

  • Hybrids: These are the always-red tomatoes you see at the grocery store (heirloom tomatoes grow in a rainbow of colors). They’re crossbreeds grown to keep the best aspects of both parent plants. While they sometimes sacrifice the flavor you’d find in heirlooms, hybrids are predictable, disease-resistant, yield more, and have a uniform appearance.
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs): These plants are altered at the genetic level to produce a desired result. They’re often viewed as negative (like the crops genetically engineered to contain pesticides). However, this term covers a wide range of alterations, and not all of them are bad. For example, they make it possible to increase the food supply and make some foods more nutritious.

How to Decide What to Plant in Your Garden

Raised-bed vegetable and flower garden in a back yard.
Joanne Dale/Shutterstock.com

Now that you know more about heirlooms, hybrids, and GMOs, which types of seeds should you plant? Well, most home gardeners are unlikely to be able to get their hands on GMO seeds, as they’re typically only sold to commercial farmers.

This leaves you with hybrid and/or heirloom seeds to choose for your garden. Most people go the hybrid route, but if you want to try your hand at heirlooms, here are a few more things to consider:

  • They might be more difficult to grow: Again, hybrids offer more predictable results and fewer ways to fail than heirlooms. If you’re just starting out, or trying to grow a notoriously difficult plant, you might have better luck with hybrids.
  • They often taste better: If you want the best possible flavor from your produce, heirlooms are usually the way to go. However, keep in mind that you’ll typically have a lower yield of those better-tasting plants.
  • They preserve plant diversity: Heirloom seeds preserve historic, diverse varieties that would be lost if no one grew them. This big-picture perspective makes your garden even more meaningful.
  • They have a history: Every heirloom seed has a story, and many of them have been passed down. For example, it’s said the Mortgage Lifter heirloom tomato was named this because the man who developed it used the money from his tomato sales to pay off his mortgage. In addition to the plants, you’ll get a chance to research some fascinating history.
  • They were saved for a reason: A certain seed wouldn’t be passed down generation after generation unless it produces something great. Sure, heirloom plants might not be the hardiest or highest-yielding. However, they often offer unsurpassed flavor, beautiful colors, and other benefits that make them worth preserving.
  • They produce seeds you can save: Because heirlooms are open-pollinated, the seeds they produce will grow just like their parent plants. This means you can save and regrow them year after year. Hybrids, on the other hand, won’t grow the same if you save the seeds.

Heirloom seeds are a fascinating way to add some history and meaning to your garden. Try planting hybrids for the plants you need more predictable results from and experiment with a few heirloom varieties, as well. Just a warning, though: the more heirlooms you plant, the more addictive they become!

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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