Why We'll Be Planting Heirloom
With only a week to go before we drive back up the coast to Ulladulla for the summer I’m starting to plan out our summer veggie garden. One of the big changes I’m planning on this year is starting our garden using heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds offer a lot of benefits from improved taste, visually delightful varieties and the chance to save seeds.
Have you ever kept the seeds from a fruit or vegetable that you bought from the supermarket and let it grow? Chances are you got a seedling and maybe even a full plant but for some reason it just wouldn’t put on fruit or produce an edible vegetable. Many of the fruits and vegetables that we buy today from the supermarket today are either grown from hybridised seeds or genetically modified seeds.
Hybridised seeds occur when two different varieties of a plant are crossbred to take the best characteristics of each parent plant and pass it on to the next generation. This sounds great in theory but the characteristics that supermarkets and commercial seed growers are looking for and large scale agriculture are breeding for aren’t necessarily the same ones that we as the consumers of the vegetable or plant would breed for.
As a consumer or a home veggie gardener chances are your priority is on taste. That’s probably closely followed by visual interest. Why grow green beans like the supermarket when you could grow a hot pink bean (Tanya’s Pink Pod) or purple spotted one (Good Mother Stallard)? And perhaps you’re growing your own produce to cut back on your shopping bill.
For the supermarkets and big agriculture the priorities are more along the lines of yield, how well it will transport (does it bounce or burst?), how long it will last for on the shelf and how uniform does it look to the “ideal” of that fruit or vegetable variety (you might recall War on Waste revealing to us the very specific requirements on bananas). Taste falls pretty low on that list.
The problem with saving and regrowing your hybridised seed is that it won’t produce a new plant that is true to the hybrid. Instead it will revert to the characteristics of only one of the vegetable’s parent plants. Chances are this plant wasn’t a robust variety in it’s own right and so your new plant probably just isn’t strong enough to produce or won’t produce good quality. So even if you really loved that tomato you had at the supermarket the resulting plant from its seeds is going to be a completely different variety.
The other reason that your supermarket veggie or commercial seed might not be able to produce a subsequent generation is because it has been genetically modified. Genetically Modified or GMO is the process of actively changing the genes or genetic structure of a plant. There are a number of reasons companies do this. Sometimes it’s to make the plant resistant to a particular insect or more hardy in a colder climate. It could be to make the produce look more visually appealing by enhancing the colour or changing the flavour. In some cases the motives are a little darker such as making the plant dependent on a specific chemical fertiliser or fungicide/insecticide (that these same companies happen to sell).
The most common change though is to simply alter the plant’s genetic structure so that it can’t reproduce naturally and any seed it produces isn’t viable. This is done so that the people who purchase the seed can’t save it and regrow it. Instead they have to keep buying the seed over and over again with seed companies gradually increasing seed prices and chemical prices on the chemicals needed to grow them.
Neither hybridised seeds or genetically modified seeds are inherently bad. They can offer the home veggie gardener the chance to grow a bigger yield or an unusual modern variety. Whilst not readily available on a small scale, care should be taken with genetically modified seeds as there are many stories of large seed companies suing farmers for “stealing” their genetically modified plant when the GMO plant cross pollinated a non-GMO variety. If your goal is to grow organic produce you probably don’t want a GMO plant to ruin the organic status of your other plants.
With all this in mind Josh and I will be planting heirloom varieties in our future gardening endeavours. But what is an heirloom seed or variety?
An heirloom fruit or vegetable (also sometimes called a heritage) seed is one that usually predates 1945 and as such hasn’t been hybridised. Another key feature is that it is open pollinated. This means that through pollination the plant can produce viable seed that will grow into another plant that is true to the parent plant’s characteristics (unless it cross pollinated!).
Because of this viable seed production you are able to save the seeds of any heirloom variety you grow and regrow the plant from season to season. Another interpretation of heirloom as passing the seed from season to season can also be seen as passing it on from generation to generation.
One of the reasons I am most excited to grow heirloom seeds is the sheer variety of each vegetable available. For example, here in Australia up until only a couple of years ago the only carrot you could buy in the supermarket were large orange carrots or earlier harvested baby carrots of this same variety. In recent years supermarkets occasionally offer a bunch of mixed colour carrots and call them heirloom. In actuality though there are many varieties of carrots. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds alone offer twenty-six different varieties! As far as variety goes I am excited to grow acorn squash, a small squash (or in Australia we would say pumpkin) that I loved in Texas but that isn’t readily available in Australia.
Another reason I’m excited to grow heirloom varieties is for taste. There are so many different tasting vegetables out there. Also the improved quality of taste. Being able to eat your produce fresh means that the taste hasn’t had a chance to deteriorate from long periods of storage yet. Also by growing your own heirloom veggies you have the opportunity to control the conditions so that the plant gets exactly what it wants to develop the most flavourful produce possible. In this area tomatoes would have to be something I am most excited to grow and enjoy.
What I am most excited for though is the possibility to collect and save my own seeds and start my own seed library or seed bank. Having access to viable, healthy seeds is a huge step in building a more resilient future and having more control over what we eat now and in the future. It sounds crazy but in some countries governments together with seed companies have made it illegal for people to save seeds, thus removing people’s choice over what they can eat and grow and making food more unaffordable and unaccessible.
It’s my hope that in growing heirloom varieties and saving seeds that I will be helping to protect food diversity into the future, making food more accessible and ensuring that we are eating the most nutritious food we possibly can.