What Are Heirloom or Heritage Vegetable Varieties?
Heirloom or heritage fruit and vegetables are older varieties that have existed for some time, and usually have been passed down from generation to generation of growers. The actual time period that a seed variety must have existed for to be considered heirloom is argued over, but generally considered to be at least 50 years old or sometimes older than 1945, which is when the use of hybrid varieties in agriculture and gardening began to become popular. The terms heirloom and heritage vegetables are interchangeable and both refer to varieties that are unchanged over many years.
Heirloom seed varieties must be open pollinated, which means that they are pollinated by natural means such as wind or insects. If you save the seeds from a heirloom plant to grow the next year, they will produce a plant with the same characteristics as the plant they came from. This is not possible with hybrid varieties; many hybrid varieties have sterile seeds that cannot be regrown, or if they do have seeds that can be regrown, the resulting plant will not have the same characteristics as the plant it the seeds came from. This is a great benefit for the prepper as seeds can be saved from a plant one year and grown again the next, and so on in future.
Why Should Preppers Grow Heirloom Vegetable Varieties?
The most obvious benefit to preppers of using heirloom seed varieties is that the seeds from a plant can be saved and regrown in to plants with the same characteristics as the plant that the seeds came from. This will provide a year-on-year ability to grow food without having to obtain new seeds from another source.
Another benefit of heirloom seed varieties is that there are so many different varieties of fruits and vegetables that are available. The fruits and vegetables that we usually see commercially grown and available for sale in supermarkets are a very limited number of varieties, grown in very large areas of land of a single variety for consistency and ease of mass production. Growing heirloom seed varieties at home gives so many choices of different varieties of vegetables that aren’t available in shops.
Heirloom seed varieties have been passed down from generation to generation, resulting in varieties are all time tested. Only seeds from plants that have great characteristics would be saved and re-grown, meaning that the heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables that we have available today are all tasty, interesting and successful crops.
Heirloom varieties are by definition non-GMO (genetically modified organisms), so a great way to provide your own food if you want to avoid GMO.
Collecting and Storing Heirloom Seeds For Re-Planting
The seeds of many fruit and vegetable plants are not ready to be harvested when the crop from the plant is edible, so in order to collect seed, a few plants from the current crop must be left to go to seed. Some edible plants such as lettuce and spinach will grow taller and flower soon after the best harvesting time for the crop. The seed heads will usually dry out when the seeds are ready for collection. Cucumbers are ready for seed collection when they fall from the plant, usually well past the edible stage. Root crops such as carrots and parsnips are actually biennials. Leaving a few plants in the ground over winter after harvesting the rest of the crop will result in those plants flowering in the spring and producing seeds that can be collected.
The seeds must be cleaned and dried for storing; usually leaving the seeds on sheets of paper in a dry place indoors for a couple of weeks is enough. They can then be stored until the next planting season in paper envelopes in a cool, dry place. Do not store in plastic packages as these may trap moisture causing the seeds to rot. Depending on how well the seeds are cleaned, dried and stored, they may remain viable for several years. Saving a few seeds when planting a crop ensures that if the crop fails you will still have seeds to plant the same variety again the following year.
Where to Get Heirloom Vegetable Seeds
Heirloom vegetable seeds are harder to find from the large commercial seed suppliers, which usually sell hybrid varieties. There are a number of websites selling a huge selection of heirloom varieties of vegetable seeds in the UK, including those listed below:
- Real Seeds
- Chiltern Seeds (Note that Chiltern Seeds sell hybrid varieties as well as heirloom varieties. This link is to their heirloom varieties page)
Alternatively, you could join a seed library such as the Garden Organic Heritage Seed Library. This project aims to conserve varieties that are not widely available, and offer a selection of seeds to its members each year. There is an annual membership fee.
There are also seed swap social media groups, where members offer spare seeds to swap for different varieties.