Thousands of years ago, our Stone Age ancestors domesticated food plants. Seeds from the best performers were selected for replanting and shared with others. Thus, the seeds that gardeners hold in their hands today form an unbroken chain of living links stretching back to antiquity. An Heirloom is a seed that was bequeathed to us from past generations.

The Heirloom pedigree

To qualify as an heirloom, a plant must meet certain requirements.

  • Its heritage must pre-date 1951, when hybrid varieties were introduced by seed companies
  • It must be open-pollinated by natural mechanisms such as wind, insects or birds
  • It must breed true to type – the offspring must be identical to the parent

Flavor vs. convenience

Hybrid seeds are the result of scientists cross-breeding plants to develop certain traits. Hybrids were designed to meet the needs of the commercial grower, which are often in direct opposition to the preferences of home gardeners. For instance, whereas a commercial operation benefits if all of the produce ripens at once, the home gardener wants successive waves of ripe vegetables over the course of the summer. Scientists gleefully sacrificed flavor and nutrition to engineer produce with more bountiful harvests and thicker skins that would withstand long-distance shipping (one example is the uniformly red, tasteless blobs that are fobbed off as tomatoes.) By contrast, flavor and nutrition are everything to the home gardener.

Breaking the chain

Many hybrids are sterile, requiring human intervention to reproduce. Those hybrids that are fertile are genetically unstable – they do not breed true to type. Gardeners who are unaware that they’re growing hybrids can be in for a big surprise if they save and plant the seed. Should it germinate at all, the seed would revert to one of the parent plants, and subsequent generations would lack vitality. Many garden stores sell hybrid seeds exclusively because it’s better for business – the gardener has to return year after year for a new supply. The effect has been to break the chain that connected humans through history. In the mid-1980s, about 20% of the existing seed companies went out of business, and many heritage collections were lost forever. Another aggravating factor was urbanization. Young people left the farm for the city, and the elders had no heirs for the family seed bank.

The return of Heirlooms

Fortunately, a grassroots movement began to reverse the loss of heirloom varieties. Gardeners now have access to heirlooms from around the world via Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Restoration Seeds, Botanical Interests and Hudson River Seed Library. Most importantly, there is the Seed Savers Exchange, which produces a catalogue of heirlooms, including those about to be dropped from production, and which could be rescued – by you! If you decide to go into seed saving in a big way, Seed by Seed is a book that explains specific techniques for saving seeds from 160 different vegetables.

Heirlooms at the Library

The Second Annual Countywide Seed Swap is ongoing through June 1st at all eleven Delaware County public libraries. Gardeners can bring in seeds they’d like to share and help themselves to seeds donated by others. While not all of the donated seeds are Heirlooms, there’s nevertheless a good selection courtesy of Transition Catskills. We provided a nice array of heirloom vegetables, and several branches even received antique sunflowers. Each branch was stocked with at least some type of salad green, cucumber, pea, string bean, squash and herb. The larger branches, such as Delhi, Hancock, Sidney, Stamford and Walton have larger selections to choose from.

Expanding your repertoire

Local nurseries can’t afford to sell a wide variety of plants, so often all that’s available is the same produce you’d find at the grocery store. But why grow plain old green beans when you could enjoy purple beans (available at the libraries in Fleischmanns, Hancock, Sidney and Walton), or Chinese noodle beans that grow to be 18” long and are bright red? (Delhi, Margaretville) You might like to try Lazy Housewife pole beans – so named because they’re easy to grow. (Hancock, Roxbury) Why stick to Butternut squash when you could be growing Chicago Warted (Bovina), Guatemalan Blue Banana (Delhi), Queensland Blue (Margaretville, Sidney), Blue Hubbard (Walton), or North Georgia Candy Roaster? (Franklin, Stamford) There’s Amish canteloupe (Andes), lemon balm (Franklin) catnip and bergamot (Stamford), and spicy arugula greens (everywhere).  Trying a new variety was never easier, and it’s free.

Come take your turn in the succession of growers and be part of the living legacy of heirloom seeds. See you at the library!