What Are Heirloom Seeds? Benefits And Growing Methods Explained

Ritwik Bhuyan
Feb 29, 2024 By Ritwik Bhuyan
Originally Published on Oct 22, 2021
Edited by Jade Scott
Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi
Red beefsteak tomatoes growing in the sunshine.
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Age: 3-18
Read time: 9.4 Min

There is not a fixed definition of heirloom seeds as the word 'heirloom' still confuses many gardeners all over the world.

The word heritage or heirloom is usually used to define seed varieties. Experts consider heirloom seeds as those seeds that are open-pollinated and have been cultivated for at least 50 years.

Many people consider the definition of heritage seeds a matter of debate. Although some people consider a seed heirloom if it has been cultivated for 50 years, some consider the number to be 100 instead. The time after World War II was when farmers started growing some monoculture crops. These are types where one crop is grown in large areas of land. Call it heritage or heirloom, the term heirloom seed is used to describe heirloom varieties of seeds that have some historical or cultural importance.

Immigrants used heirloom varieties and cultivated them for years. Hybrid seeds have been an important part of farming for few decades, but hybrid ones are not as reliable as open-pollinated seeds. Hybrid seeds do not guarantee you the same end result as the parent breed once planted. An heirloom variety of seeds can be anything from fruits, vegetables, heirloom plants, and even livestock. Heirloom varieties are selected with precision for specific characteristics. The cultivated organic seeds planted by gardeners show the same characteristics as the generation before. However, these results and characteristics can only be seen in the crop that has been grown, harvested, and propagated in the right way.

The produce should be perfect in texture and should retain the same leaf, color, flavor, taste, and yield as the produce from a few generations back. However, similar characteristics among the varieties cannot be guaranteed as plants grow side by side in gardens and there are chances of cross-pollination. Plants and crops need to be separated and how growers do this depends on heirloom varieties and their characteristics. It might be few meters or even a few miles. The quality of the harvested seeds depends on their isolation and storage. It matters how a cultivator has stored the varieties and also that the crop is free of any disease. If all these conditions are met, it is more guaranteed that growing heirloom seeds will have the maximum impact.

Due to the nature of the heirloom seeds, almost all heirloom plants have histories that are traceable. There are many heirloom tomatoes that are simply listed in books as fruits of the pre-1800 era. Heirloom seeds can never be hybrids or GMOs. GMO refers to genetically modified seeds that are created in a lab. The basic genetic material of an heirloom seed is altered in the case of genetically modified seeds (GMO) to make them resistant to the effect of herbicides. GMO seeds are mostly corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, zucchini, squash, or wheat. Seeds of home garden crops like peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and lettuce are unaffected by GMOs.

If you enjoyed this article, why not also read the answers to are seeds alive and where do sunflower seeds come from on Kidadl?

What's the difference between heirloom seeds and regular seeds?

If you want to grow some good varieties of fruits and vegetables in your gardens, but are confused seeing the various names of seeds present in the market, heirloom seeds can be a good gardening start for you as they will provide you with genetic diversity among plants.

The primary classification of the seed family can be probably divided into heirloom, hybrids, and open-pollinated seeds. The open-pollinated plants are pollinated by external sources like bees, birds, or even wind. A point to be noted here; all heirloom plants are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated are heirloom plants. Genetic variation or diversity can also be boosted as the seeds are carried from plant to plant. This diversity helps the plants gain control of their resistance to the local weather year after year.

Hybrid seeds are when two or more varieties of plants are brought together for mixing. Hybrids are cross-bred from different varieties of seeds. As a result, the produce of the hybrids turns out to be a new variety entirely. You must have noticed some big tomato plants in the gardens, or fruits that taste different entirely but look the same. These are hybrid plants. However, you cannot take a seed from a hybrid plant to create more hybrids. You can easily find hybrid varieties of seeds in the market and these are affordable too. A hybrid plant will give you the perfect fruit or vegetable in terms of shape and looks, but the same cannot be said about the taste.

Heirlooms plants are the same as open-pollinated ones that have been the same for the last few decades. Growing heirloom plants has its benefit against growing hybrid ones as the organic seeds grow the same traits as their predecessors with the same taste, texture, flavor, and even a disease, or the lack of it. Most gardeners consider the heirloom varieties the superior among the options available. There have been many cases of people using heirloom tomatoes for gardening. The tomato fruit turns out to be full of flavor, juicy, and vibrant. The tomato will have lumps and bumps along the body unlike the hybrid ones, but this is what makes the fruit so delicious and colorful.

What are the benefits of heirloom seeds?

Let's talk more about the benefits of heirloom seeds. Apart from getting the opportunity to grow a plant from your own seeds, there are few other benefits too.

Heirloom varieties have histories. Any seed of vegetables, fruits, or flowers that have been preserved and passed on from generation to generation will have histories associated with it. There are many references in books of a type of heirloom plant that used to grow hundreds of years back, still growing in a garden near you. As these seeds have been tested quite rigorously by gardeners previously, they should be disease-free. Only after confirming the positive aspects of the plant seed, would gardeners have chosen to pass it down to the next generation, and so on. There are varieties that grow naturally in few places where the hybrid counterparts simply fail to bloom. This type of heirloom plant would be exceptionally tasty, hardy, and beautiful.

In order to produce seeds, all plant species need to be pollinated. For open pollination, nature takes up the duty by using insects, birds, or breeze to transfer the seed from a plant to another. Collecting this seed and growing it will result in the same plant that the seed came from. The most important point is that all heirloom seed varieties are non-GMO. The DNA of the seed is not changed in heirloom plants, as opposed to in GMOs, where it is. A seed for a GMO plant is modified artificially, mostly with genes from different varieties that the plant naturally does not cross with. GMO seeds are modified for resistance against some pests or chemicals. GMOs are available for commercial farmers and home gardeners do not usually use them. Companies have tried to save many varieties of seeds this way.

Organic seeds need to be grown in compliance with organic standards set by the National Organic Program of USDA. The seeds need to grow in organic soil certified by the organization and the use of fertilizer and pest controls should be in accordance with the regulators. There are organic heirloom seeds that give a better yield than normal ones. So if you are someone who likes vegetables organic, you will be able to grow them. Many seed companies and organizations that save heirloom seeds offer plenty of options when it comes to buying for your gardens. You can choose from the ones on sale in your local grocery store. You are sure to appreciate these seeds as they make your plants more vibrant and tastier than ever.

Wooden box filled with fresh vine ripened heirloom tomatoes.

Are heirloom seeds harder to grow?

All types of seeds need the same basic things to survive in the world. Be it hybrids or heirloom, all seeds are the same but some might be harder to grow than the other.

Water, soil, and sunlight are the basic requirements of all plants in the world. Hybrids have now been made disease-resistant to some extent (especially tomatoes) and their performance has been made better too. Some hybrids do not even need high attention all the time and can just grow on their own. Although the food produced from the plant might taste a little watery, it still gives a generally positive yield each season. Heirloom, on the other hand, preserves its traits from the previous few generations and any fruit or vegetable from these seeds tastes great.

They preserve the richness and brilliant texture of the fruit or vegetable that the hybrids cannot do. However, if heirloom seeds are grown in places other than the one where they were previously planted, or if the conditions of growing change, it might be difficult to grow these seeds. They will need constant care and hands-on service all the time. They might also lack disease resistance and this is why it is important to choose the right seeds for the conditions to be favorable for the plant to grow. If the heirloom seeds are grown in the same place as they were previously grown, they will perform well without a lot of pampering.

Examples Of Heirloom Vegetables

Heirloom seeds elevate the gardening experience for everyone and there are few heirloom vegetables you can try growing if all growing conditions are met.

Some famous heirloom vegetables that are grown all over the world include the yellow pear tomato, Lolla Rossa lettuce, Moon and Stars watermelon, Brandywine pink tomato, Henderson lima bean, rainbow carrots, blue hubbard squash, Big Jim peppers, lemon cucumber, and royal burgundy beans.

How are heirloom vegetables grown?

When you attempt to grow an heirloom vegetable, remember not to trust a hybrid as it will not yield the same product as the parent breed.

You can save on buying heirloom seeds from companies as peas, lettuce, beans, peanuts, tomatoes, and peppers are self pollinators and will duplicate the traits of the parent plants. They should be planted at least 10 feet apart as insects too will pollinate these plants. There are insect or wind-pollinated heirloom varieties like squash, corn, onions, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, beets, turnips, spinach, melons, and many others that need to be planted several hundred yards from other varieties of plants. This will help prevent cross-pollination. It is important to meet the requirements of the heirloom plant you are choosing.

For vegetables like beans, most parts of the product will be seeds and not food. There are a few positive outcomes from heirloom vegetables. Heirloom vegetables are grown locally to keep the taste intact because it is the taste that makes them famous. Hybrid seeds lose all the real taste of the vegetable. Stability is important from place to place as heirloom plants are resistant to local diseases. They provide better nutrition than any other type of plant.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for what are heirloom seeds then why not take a look at what are mothballs used for or where do tomato worms come from.

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Written by Ritwik Bhuyan

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English

Ritwik Bhuyan picture

Ritwik BhuyanBachelor of Arts specializing in English

A skilled content writer, Ritwik holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Delhi University. He has refined his writing abilities through his past experience at PenVelope and his current role at Kidadl. In addition to his proficiency in writing, Ritwik has pursued his passion for flying by achieving CPL training and becoming a licensed commercial pilot. This diverse skill set highlights his commitment to exploring multiple fields. Ritwik's experience in the aviation industry has provided him with a unique perspective and attention to detail, which he brings to his writing.

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