What are heirloom seeds?
An Heirloom seed, also referred to as a heritage seed, is generally defined as an open pollinated variety that has resulted from natural selection rather than a controlled hybridization process. Open pollinated seeds are those that results from insects, wind, self-pollination, or other natural pollination.
Many sources agree that an “heirloom seed” variety must be at least 50 years of age to be considered an heirloom. What exactly constitutes an heirloom seed is still a topic that seems to be hotly debated though. Some say an heirloom seed must be 100 years old, and others say heirloom seeds are any seed from before 1945 which marks the end of World War II and roughly the beginning of widespread hybrid use by growers and seed companies.
Non GMO seeds
GE (Genetically Engineered), also referred to as GMO or Genetically Modified Organism, describes the high-tech methods used in recent decades to incorporate genes directly into an organism. The only way scientists can transfer genes between organisms that are not sexually compatible is to use recombinant DNA techniques. This means that the actual DNA of the plant is scientifically altered. The plants that result do not occur in nature; they are “Genetically Engineered” by human intervention and manipulation.
By definition, heirloom seeds are non GMO seeds.
GMO VS Hybrid Seeds
Hybrid / F1 or first generation hybrid seeds occur when a plant breeder selects two pure lines (plants that produce identical offspring when self-polinated) and cross-pollinates them in a controlled environment to produce a seed which combines desirable characteristics or traits from both parents. Common traits plant breeders work to increase in hybrids might include, for example, disease resistance, uniformity, earliness or color. Hybrid seeds are often more expensive due to the high cost in production. Seeds can be saved from hybrids, however plants grown from that seed will not come true; in other words, may lack the desirable characteristics of the parents. An example of a hybrid is Sungold tomatoes. This is different than genetically engineered seeds in the sense that you are not “changing” the genetic make up of the plant, however, hybrid seeds are still seeds you would not otherwise find in nature.
Why Choose Heirloom Plants?
When looking for what to plant next, many are under the impression that heirloom seeds are delicate when in actuality they can be quite hardy. The seeds that we have today come from generations of careful selection of the hardiest, best tasting, and heat/cold/disease tolerant varieties that were grown. They have had years to grow and adapt while genetically engineered and hybrid seed verities just can’t promise the same adaptive qualities.
While genetically engineered seeds can offer some “improvements” or “benefits” this is not without a trade off. For example, they sacrifice fragrance in flowers or flavors in vegetables to create more vibrant colors. This is why biting into a tomato from your grandmothers garden was significantly more satisfying, flavorful, and juicy than a GMO tomato you find at the store.
Planting Heirloom Seeds
Every delicious heirloom vegetable on your plate had its start somewhere, why not from heirloom seeds in your own backyard?
We recommend starting your garden from seeds as this gives you more variety to choose from. You can often only find a few varieties plants from local nurseries whereas many seed companies carry over 1400 varieties of seed. Also, some vegetables aren’t happy when transplanted, so direct seeding is your best option.
When deciding what heirloom seeds to grow, the top facto is where you live. To make things easier and more standardized the USDA creates a Plant Hardiness Zone Map which basically maps the average low temperatures for a given area. The zone map can help you determine what will grow well where you live.
In general, small seeds should be planted fairly shallow about a 1/4 inch while larger seeds can be planted about 3/4 inches deep. For best results be sure to follow the instructions on the seed packet
Some of the most popular heirloom vegetables to grow are heirloom tomatoes, corn, beans, beets, carrots, peppers, and spinach. Click here to buy heirloom vegetable seeds.
Planting heirloom tomato seeds: when growing heirloom tomatoes from seed you have a wide variety of options. You have everything from your basic red tomato or grape tomatoes to green tomatoes, tomatillos, and black tomatoes. Generally, the best time to start or transplant tomato seeds is 2 weeks after the last frost until 6 to 8 weeks prior to the first frost. . be sure to erect tomato supports when the seeds have sprouted. be sure not to over water as this can cause the seeds to rot.
Planting heirloom corn seed: Heirloom corn does best on a deep, well-drained soil which has an abundant and uniform supply of water throughout the growing season.
Planting heirloom carrot seeds: Heirloom carrots are easy to grow and an excellent source of Vitamin A. Carrots do require a lot of moisture and are not drought tolerant but will grow wonderfully in cool weather.
Planting heirloom bean seeds: Heirloom beans are a warm weather crop and need full sun. Heirloom beans prefer a well draining soil that is loaded with good humus and composted manure. Loose soil is very important for seed emergence. Plant heirloom bush beans 4 inches apart and spread the rows 2-3′ wide. Plant heirloom pole beans at least 6″ apart and spread rows at least 4′ wide. Be sure not to plant beans in the same place each year to prevent soil erosion and disease.
Planting heirloom beet seeds: Heirloom beets are an annual cool-season crop, half-hardy to frost and light freezes. Pre-soak heirloom beet seeds overnight before planting to help them get a good, quick start. Sow seed 1/2 inch deep in rows 12-18 inches apart. As many as three plants may germinate where each seed is sown, so place seeds sparingly. When seedlings are 4-6 inches high, thin plants to stand 1 1/2 inches apart, you can use these clippings in a salad. As the heirloom beets grow to about the size of a marble, pull every other one to allow larger beets to grow. It is very important to provide consistent moisture so beets do not become woody
Some popular heirloom or heritage grains to grow are amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, and barley. Click here to buy seed for planting grain.
Planting amaranth seed: Amaranth is great for a salad or micro greens, for griding into flour, or for using as a dye. It is also often used as an ornamental plant due to its bright and beautiful color. Amaranth seed is susceptible to frost and is best to plant after the soil starts to warm in the spring. It can be started 6 weeks early in greenhouse if you prefer.
Planting buckwheat seed: buckwheat is a versatile plant that is used in many ways. Buckwheat hulls are used for things like buckwheat pillows and cattle feed, or it can be ground into buckwheat flour for soba noodles. Planting buckwheat is excellent for the garden as it can be planted to smother out weeds, attract honey bees, and replenish nutrients into the soil. Buckwheat must be planted after there is no more risk of frost. Plant seeds about 1/2 inch deep.
Planting quinoa seed: Quinoa has been a staple of many cultures diets for centuries. Quinoa like cool temperatures and can tolerate a light frost, however, it is temperature sensitive and not highly adaptable. It grows best in sandy soil.
Planting flax seed: Seed flax is an annual plant that grows to a height of 12 to 36 inches. It has a distinct main stem with numerous branches at the top which produce flowers. Branches from the base of the plant may also occur depending on variety, stand, and environment. The plant has a branched taproot system which may extend to a depth of 3 to 4 feet in coarse textured soil.
Herbs are popular to grow due to their size and versatility. It is easy to create a small indoor her garden or grow herbs outdoors. Fresh herbs can transform your kitchen.
Some of the most popular herbs to grow from seed are sage, thyme, mint, basil, and lavender. Click here to buy seeds for your herb garden.
Growing thyme from seed: different varietals of thyme perform differently however each is hardy. Creeping thyme can be drought tolerant once established while winter thyme can withstand the cold. Both are great seeds to plant for lining walkways or surrounding trees as they can tolerate light foot traffic.
Growing sage from seed: Sage grows 2′-3′ in height. It is a woody and hardy perennial herb, flavorful and excellent with meats. Sow sage seeds directly in the garden 1/8 inch deep, in late spring. Thin to 2 feet apart when seedlings are 4 inches tall. Sage likes full sun. Morning sun is very important in that it dries the thick furry leaves preventing fungus.
Growing mint from seed: mint is a refreshing herb great fur curing stomach aches among other things. Peppermint thrives in full sun and spreads via its roots. These roots can be invasive in warm climates where frost does not kill it back. We recommend planting peppermint seeds under your roses. Both love sun and seem to complement each other.
Growing basil from seed: basil is a fragrant plant excellent for pesto or a calming tea. Basil seeds/plants prefer 6 to 8 hours of full sun daily with moist well drained soil. Tips: tomatoes and basil are good companion plants. For bushier plants pinch back the blooms of the basil.
Growing lavender from seed: Lavender plants are a woody shrub that are famous for their amazing fragrance and medicinal properties. Lavender likes full sun and a well draining slightly alkaline soil and is hardy to Zone 5. It will not tolerate poor drainage, full shade or high humidity. Use sterile potting mix when planting and do not bury seed, just press the seed on the surface.
Saving Heirloom Seeds for beginners
As all your fresh veggies begin to ripen, it’s time to start thinking about saving seed for next year. Though it can be a daunting task for the basic gardener, it is somewhat easy to do if the seeds you grew were open pollinated, meaning done naturally by insects etc. Heirloom seeds will produce vegetables with similar traits to the parent, while hybrid seeds will not, and GMO seeds will often not grow at all. This is why you should only save seeds from your open pollinated plants.
Some seeds are ready for harvest when the fruit/vegetable has reached peak ripeness, while other need to be beyond a point of normal ripeness.
The first thing you need to know are your vegetable groups. vegetables of the same species or vegetable group can cross pollinate and will need to be planted at a great distance from each other.
For the beginner or those with limited space, we recommend planting only one type from each vegetable group.
Main Plant Families
Amaryllidaceae Family – Leeks, Onions, Shallots, Garlic
Brassicaceae Family – Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Kale, Kohlrabi, Horseradish, Mustard, Turnip, Rutabaga, Watercress
Compositae Family – Artichoke, Endive, Chicory, Lettuce, Sunflower
Chenopodiaceae Family – Beet, Chard, Spinach, Quinoa
Solanaceae Family – Peppers, Potatoes, Eggplants, and Garden Huckleberry
There are also “self pollinators” which pollinate themselves rather than via insect or wind. These run very little risk of self pollination and can be planted near similar species. Self pollinators include tomatoes, beans, and peas.
For example if you planted different tomato varieties next to each other, the seeds you save will still demonstrate characteristics from the parent seeds and will not exhibit “cross pollination”. Whereas, something like leeks and onions planted next to each other will “cross’ and could yield unknowing results with seeds saved from these plants.
When it comes to plants that aren’t “self pollinators”, It is recommended for seed saving that you plant similar varieties should be planted separately by a minimum of 500 ft to be sure the seed is pure.
Cucurbits—such as squash, cucumbers, gourds, zucchini, pumpkins and melons—need even more personal space since these vegetables must be pollinated by insects. So, unless close relatives (of the same species) are separated by a half-mile or more, you’ll get a surprise if you grow the seeds.
here are a few simple plants to start with to begin to learn how to save seed.
Saving heirloom pepper seeds
Pepper seeds are an easy seed to start with as it is simple to remove the seed from a ripe pepper. Simply remove the seed from the flesh of the pepper and place on a glass or ceramic dish in the shade to dry. Check them periodically and stir them regularly to be sure they dry evenly and don’t clump together. They are ready when they break easily rather than bend.
Saving heirloom tomato seeds
It is a little more difficult to save tomato seeds, but worth it.
you’ll notice when you cut open a tomato and squeeze out the juice the seeds that come out have a gelatinous coating. This is to prevent them from sprouting withing the tomato and it needs to be removed to save the seed for future use.
This can be done by fermentation, which is an easy process and is also great for weeding out bad seeds/ To start the fermentation process squeeze the tomato juice and seeds into a bowl. Then fill the bowl with about half as much water. You’ll want to let it sit for approx 3 days (less if in a hot climate, heat speeds up fermentation), in an area away from possible spills and where the smell won’t bother you. It will stink!
When the surface has started to bubble or has a thick coating of mold, stop the fermentation by adding water to double the amount of liquid in the bowl and stir vigorously. The good seeds will sink to the bottom. Pour off the mold, juice, and floating seeds (they’re hollow) and repeat the process until you are left with the clean seeds at the bottom.
Strain the seeds and put them onto a glass or ceramic plate to dry. Stir twice a day to ensure even drying and to prevent the seeds from clumping together. Warning: Tomato seeds will germinate unless you dry them quickly. To speed drying, you can use a fan, but don’t put the seeds in sunlight or an oven.
Saving cucumber seeds
Cucumber seeds are ready when the cucumber has become soft after ripening. Its best to pick cucumbers for seed saving at the end of the season as cucumber plants will stop producing if you stop picking the ripe cucumbers.
Cut the cucumber in half and scrape the seeds into a bowl. To remove the seeds’ coating, rub them gently around the inside of a sieve while washing them or soak them in water for 2 days. Rinse and dry the seeds.
Saving summer squash seeds
Squash seeds should be saved from squash that is past its ripe stage. Once you can no longer dent the squash with your finger nail it is at the right stage. Cut the squash open and put the seeds into a glass or ceramic bowl. Wash, strain, and dry completely.
Looking for what to do with all your freshly grown or extra produce? Here are some recipes:
Green Beans with Walnuts, Fennel and Feta
• 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
• 1 tsp coarse ground mustard
• salt and pepper to taste
• 1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• 2 pound trimmed green beans
• 1 small bulb of fennel (thinly sliced)
• 3/4 cups roasted, chopped walnuts (You could also use pine nuts or pecans)
• 4 oz crumbled feta
Whisk together vinegar, mustard and oil. Season with salt and pepper
Blanch green beans, cooking 6-8 minutes until tender. Set aside.
Combine beans, fennel and walnuts in a lrage bowl. Add feta and dressing just before serving. Toss well to coat.
This dish can be served at room temperature or chilled.
Southwest Salad with Citrus Dressing
2 cups cooked black beans (15oz can will work)
½ diced red onion
2 diced red tomato
1 diced large bel pepper (color of your choosing)
1-2 Large handful of fresh spinach
1 cup of cooked corn kernels
1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro
Juice from 1 large orange
Juice from 1 ½ lime
¼ tsp honey or maple syrup
1/8 tsp chili powder (more to taste)
1/8 tsp salt
pinch of cayenne
Instruction: dice all salad ingredients and place into a bowl. In separate bowl combine all dressing ingredients and mix well. Pour the dressing over the salad and stir. Serve cold or at room temperature.