What are heirlooms?
It’s a question we get a lot. Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company has a perfect explanation:
“Basically, an Heirloom seed is one that has been passed down through families and is usually considered to be over 50 years old. Some varieties even date back to Thomas Jefferson’s garden and beyond.”
Unlike hybrid and GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, which often have problems reproducing true to type, Heirloom seeds can be saved and replanted, year after year. Which is how they have been handed down over the generations.
Prior to the industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of plants were grown by farmers and gardeners. Regional differences developed over decades, in response to varying climate, soil, and cultural preferences. Unfortunately, many modern crops come from mega-farms, where they are grown in large, monocultures — hundreds of acres of the same plant. Where heirloom gardeners choose varieties to meet personal preference, industrial farmers choose varieties based on the ability to be mechanically harvested, shipped across country, and remain unblemished.
Why grow heirlooms?
There are several reasons to grown heirloom seeds. Not the least of which is protecting biodiversity. Remember the Irish potato famine in the 1840s? That’s a prime example of the dangers of relying too heavily on a single plant species. Since the Irish farmers were growing one particular variety of potato, which turned out to be susceptible to a type of potato blight that wound up wiping out their crops for years. If the farmers had grown several different types of potatoes, they likely would have had several varieties that were resistant to the blight that they could have used.
In addition to biodiversity, though, heirlooms vegetables and fruits are often more flavorful than hybrid and GMO plants. Think of a supermarket tomato compared with a tomato from your grandma’s garden. There’s no comparison! In fact, heirloom tomatoes are probably the single crop that has done the most for bringing awareness to the benefits of saving heirloom plants in the first place. Once they started showing up in restaurants and at farmers markets, word got out about how much better they were. Now you can get heirloom seeds for every plant imaginable, from asparagus to zucchini, and everything in between.
We’re excited about attending the 2012 National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, CA, September 11 – 13! Our founder Kristee Rosendahl will be speaking about the benefits of using digital tools in support of local foodsheds. And to help our fans get excited, we’re giving away loads of goodies over on our Facebook page! In addition to our daily giveaways of Smart Add Ons and Smart Gardener market bags, on September 10, two lucky gardeners will win a three-day pass to the expo!