Heirloom gardening is the practice of using plants and seeds that are “open-pollinated” instead of plants that are hybrids or genetically engineered. Open-pollinated plants produce fertile seeds after the flower or fruit fades. A gardener can collect the seeds for the next season’s planting and share them with new generations of gardeners as “heirlooms.”
Heirloom gardeners preserve historic plants that may not be popular or cost effective enough to be mass produced by big seed companies. But preservation isn’t the only reason to cultivate an interest in heirloom gardening.
The product of heirloom plants and seeds are often stronger, healthier, more aromatic, more nutritious and more delicious than modern hybrids, and heirloom varieties ensure a biological diversity that benefits the environment as a whole. In addition, a gardener can use her own seeds from heirloom plants, breaking her dependence on commercial seed companies.
Growing heirloom varieties also gives some gardeners a deeper feeling of connection to the earth and their family history. In some cases, gardeners are planting seeds that have been coveted in their family for generations, perhaps brought from around the world when their ancestors first migrated to a new home.
There are hundreds of heirloom varieties available to the modern gardener. Some of the most beloved heirloom vegetables include Kentucky Wonder bush beans, Armenian cucumber, Ruby Queen radish, Eden’s Gem melon and Buttercrunch lettuce. Black-eyed Susan, Sweet William, Johnny Jump Up, Pansy, the Golden Globe rose and Merry Melody rose are just a few of the heirloom flowers that can be grown in most landscapes. Heirloom varieties extend to shrubs, herbs, fruit trees and berry vines - everything that grows has an open-pollinated “ancestor” in its past.
There are no special rules or requirements for heirloom gardening, though most gardeners who cherish heirloom plants would likely recommend the use of strict organic gardening methods. Heirloom varieties are easy to find in locally owned nurseries, Internet outlets and through seed exchange programs. Since most heirloom plants are hardier and less expensive than most hybrids, there’s no reason to shy away from planting a few “old” varieties in your garden this season.