Have you see Heirloom root vegetables on a menu? Or have you noticed the word Heirloom on a seed packet? What are Heirloom seeds, what does the term actually mean? Turns out it is not a simple one line definition (apologies to all the googlers that landed here!).
- Typically these varieites have a cultural or historical value – they might be grown in a specific area or community
- Heirloom has an association with “olde worlde” and all things historical, but this is a nostalgic notion that leaves little room for the development and maintenance of new cultivars.
- Heirlooms are most often open-pollinated, with pollination occurring naturally through wind or insect activity – though sometimes a bit of human assistance is needed.
- Heirloom varieties tend to be grown by home gardeners and small scale producers, not large agriculture. Big scale farms tend to grow hybrid varieties that offer traits of value of the challenges of large scale production, such as disease resistance, ability to cope with mechanisation, and transport. So you can see that the traits a home gardener desires are not the same! We are looking for flavour and ease of growing.
- Heirloom varieties are stable varieties which breed true to type when ‘open-pollinated’. This means you can save the seeds from an heirloom variety (assuming it has not cross pollinated with another variety) and the plants which grow from those seeds will be the same as the plant they came from. On the other hand, hybrid varieties are not stable. This means if you save seeds from a hybrid, at worst – they will be sterile, at best – the characteristics of the plants which grow from those seeds will be unpredictable.
- Buying Heirloom varieties is a good example of thinking globally and acting locally, we should think of farmers and families in developing countries that need access to seeds to grow their food and to trade. The thought of big companies controlling access and placing a high price on seeds is pretty scary. Everyone should be able to source and save open seeds.
Seed companies like Heirloom Harvest play an important role as guardians of our food heritage. By storing, growing out, and carefully harvesting seeds they are custodians of the genetic material that brings us so much eating happiness. Yes, you can collect seeds from heirloom varieties yourself – but I myself am not that committed to the process, as I prefer to eat my plants when ready to be harvested (such as lettuce, broccoli) rather than let them go to seed. Fruits like Tomato are easier to manage, all it takes is to collect the seeds from the cutting board after making a salad! I’ve kept my Tommy Toe seeds each year just drying them out on paper towel. I caught up with John and Tara Butler, the clever people behind South Australian based seed company Heirloom Harvest to find out more. My interview with Heirloom Harvest…..
What are some of the benefits of choosing heirloom varieties over hybrids?
- Heirloom varieties have been bred for home gardeners and small scale farmers who want characteristics such as: flavour, local adaptation, yield, disease resistance, colour, and diversity. Hybrids are usually bred for large scale farms which want characteristics such as: uniformity, ability to withstand transport, synchronized ripening, yield, and disease resistance (often at the expense of flavour).
- Heirloom varieties are ‘open source’ which means they are not owned by anyone and anyone can save seeds and use them legally. Heirloom varieties are usually maintained by individuals, families or small scale farmers; buying heirloom varieties support these small to medium sized businesses. Hybrid varieties are usually owned by a large company, such as Monsanto, which have an enormous financial incentive to sell seeds which do not breed true to type. This means that customers must continue to buy new seeds from them every season. Hybrid varieties are produced by very scientifically controlled breeding in large scale industrial farms.
How do you Heirloom Harvest produce and save seeds?
- For seeds which do not cross pollinate easily we save seed from our own garden. To ensure these seeds are true to type we use a range of techniques that include hand-pollination (for pumpkins, zucchinis, squash and other gourds) and use exclusion bags (for lettuce and other greens).
- In order to offer our customers a diverse range of varieties we also source seed from specialist heirloom seed growers here in the Adelaide Hills as well as interstate growers from Tasmania and New South Wales. We love supporting these small scale farmers and growers as they have the passion and love for gardening as much as we do!
What are some of your production challenges?
- The main challenge for producing heirloom seeds is maintaining the purity of the variety. As ‘varieties’ are variations of a plant species (in the same way ‘breeds’ of dogs are all variations of the same species), different varieties can ‘cross’ with other varieties of the same species. This cross-pollination produces offspring with different characteristics to the parent species (just like dog breeds). As many plant species need to be pollinated with the aid of wind or insects (which it is impossible to control), large isolation distances are required, sometimes measured in kilometres.
- For example take Brassica oleracea. This one species contains cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale and kohlrabi. On top of this, each of these crop types has many different varieties. Only one variety from one crop type of Brassica oleracea can be grown in one area, in a single season. This is where our network of growers comes in as they only grow one variety within a one kilometre exclusion zone. Without these individual growers, we wouldn’t be able to supply the diversity of seed we currently do.
What varieties would you recommend to a learner gardener?
- Some of our favourite winter varieties of easy to grow plants are: kale (Lacinato), peas (Alderman), lettuce (Black Seeded Simpson), silverbeet (Rainbow Chard), mizuna (green), broccoli (purple)
- Some of our favourite summer varieties of easy to grow plants are: tomato (Mortgage Lifter, Beams Yellow Pear, Brandywine), pumpkin (Poti Maron), basil (Italian), cucumber (Redlands Long), and squash (Golden Buttons).
What varieties have you grown that have most surprised you (either appearance, growth habit, or flavour etc…)?
- One of our favourite plants to grow is mizuna, it grows year round, produces prolifically and tastes delicious. We eat it raw or cooked and is a staple in our kitchen cooking. Planted in early spring, it will grow through summer and autumn – unless you eat it all first!
- We always have ‘Rainbow Chard’ growing in our garden, it is so versatile and adds splashes of colour into the vegie patch which can get a bit bland mid-winter.
- ‘Snowy’ Eggplant produces brilliant white fruit which not only look amazing but are also less bitter than their ‘aubergine’ relatives.
Thanks John and Tara for the info!
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