How to choose heirloom seeds: 5 tips

heirloom tomatoes

What defines a plant as ‘heirloom’?

According to University of Kentucky Extension, heirloom seeds are varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation and are usually between 50 and 100 years old or even older. Others argue that they must have been developed prior to the 1940s and 1950s, before plant breeders began to sell hybrid varieties in the 1960s. Either way, heirloom varieties of vegetables, fruit and flowers can be a great addition to your garden.

Heirloom varieties have survived through natural selection. Heirloom plants are open pollinators, meaning their seeds will produce plants with characteristics similar to the parent plant. Open-pollinated plants pollinate naturally, such as by birds, bees or the wind.

5 facts about choosing heirloom seeds

  1. red, green, yellow and orange heirloom tomatoes
    Photo by: Monitorpop at English Wikipedia [CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons]
    Heirlooms are good for specific purposes. For instance, Roma tomatoes are better cooked than eaten raw, and brandywine tomatoes are great for fresh eating and slicing. When you choose seed, have in mind what you want to use your tomatoes for. Clemson University Extension lists some popular cultivars of beans, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, melons, tomatoes, peppers and other fruits and vegetables as well as descriptions and uses.
  2. Know that most heirloom varieties won’t produce a lot of fruit in a single growing season. Burpee explains that this is one of the reasons why hybrid seeds were produced. Clemson University Extension explains that when properly stored, vegetable seeds will last 3 to 5 years. Certain seeds are considered long-lived, medium-lived and short-lived.
  3. Choose varieties that are known to perform well in your region. Know your growing season length, frost dates and if you’re going to directly sow seeds or start them indoors. Over time, heirloom seeds grow accustomed to the area or region’s climate, soil type and pests, Clemson University Extension explains.
  4. Heirloom varieties aren’t disease-resistant. University of Illinois Extension explains that unlike hybrid seeds, which are inbred to produce specific characteristics such as disease resistance, heirloom seeds don’t contain this quality for current day plant diseases. University of Kentucky Extension suggests controlling weeds, using integrated pest management strategies and rotating crops should help with disease prevention.
  5. Heirloom seeds will sometimes produce traits different from the parent plant. Most of the time, though, the seeds will produce as expected. Rick Abrahamson, South Dakota State University Cooperative Extension Coordinator, explains that dominant genes in heirloom varieties produce the traits, so traits should remain similar year after year. To prevent cross-pollination, you can cover blossoms with mesh bags, Midwest Gardening suggests.

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