Have you ever wondered when perusing the fruit and vegetable section of your local supermarket, why there is such a pitiful selection of varieties on offer? Typically, you are presented with hard tasteless anemic looking red tomatoes, uninspired looking English cucumbers, tiny iceberg lettuces, glassy potatoes and some golf ball-sized granny smith apples. All in all, you are lucky if you find a dozen different fruit and veg varieties. Globally there are hundreds, if not, thousands of varieties. Where are the likes of the Rutgers, Oxheart, Black Krim tomatoes, the Red Valentine and Ice beans, Turga parsnips, Mouse melons, Dragon carrots and Mountain Rose potatoes? Well, as growers have shifted towards GMO’s there has been a dramatic decline in global crop diversity, with heterogeneous fields of crops replaced with monocultures of a single crop variety. This occurred as industrialised agriculture required that all plants be of a similar shape, size, colour, withstand mechanical picking and shipping, and ripen at the same time. These requirements drastically narrowed the range of crops grown. Many of which you find in your supermarket stem from hybrid or even GMO strains. In the face of this grim reality, let me outline why everyone who can, should have an heirloom garden.
Firstly, let me give a quick description of what constitutes an heirloom plant variety. While there is no general consensus on the definition of heirloom, most people agree that heirloom varieties of seeds were those grown before World War II. Where, before the advent of commercial agriculture, a huge diversity of crops were grown, the seeds of which were saved, traded with neighbours, and passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, these are “old” varieties of seeds grown before the age of GMO’s. Heirloom seeds derive from open-pollinated plants, either wind or insect pollinated, where genetically similar traits are passed from parent to offspring. These traits are passed from one generation to the next, maintaining the genetic integrity of the species. In general, most heirloom seeds varieties are organic, as they are generally not grown commercially and only utilized by small-scale gardeners.
Now that you know what an heirloom seed variety is, why should they become the mainstay of your garden?
1) Genetic diversity - by maintaining an heirloom garden, you help preserve the diversity of the world’s food crops. Heirloom seeds are the only ones that generally breed true, meaning that, their genetic traits are inherited from one generation to the next. By contrast, hybrid vegetables are bred through cross pollination between different varieties of plants. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the offspring will have the same morphological traits as the parent plants. While both heirloom and hybrids can be seen as naturally occurring, GMO’s are produced through DNA modification, whereby plants are selectively bred for certain preferable traits (i.e. bigger brighter fruit), often, at a trade-off of decreased resistance to diseases and changes in climatic conditions. Additionally, collected seeds from GMO’s and even hybrids may be sterile or have an unpredictable gene expressions in subsequent generations
2) Resilience and Growing - heirloom varieties have been bred over time to respond optimally to their local climatic and soil conditions, making them resistant to pathogens, local pests, and weather extremes. This means that unlike GMO’s, farmers who grow heirloom varieties don’t need to resort to pesticides and other harsh chemicals to manage pest problems. This also ensures the survival of beneficial insect species in your garden. Moreover, many heirloom seed varieties produce large quantities of fruit, thus ensuring, you never need go without.
3) Cuisine - heirloom vegetables are generally more nutritious, often having a superior flavour and taste to their supermarket counterparts. If you are tired of the hard flavourless watery tomatoes from your local supermarket, try Oxheart or Rutgers or one of the dozen different heirloom varieties of tomatoes, all of which are have a deeper, richer flavour and will elevate your salads to new heights.
4) Aesthetics – heirloom fruit and veg seed varieties come in myriad of different colours, shapes and sizes, making them hugely attractive to local gardeners. From vivid purples, pinks and oranges to crisp whites and every shade of green imaginable. Grow cucumbers the size of grapes or pumpkins the size of carriages. An heirloom garden will fascinate family and friends and draw admiring glances from neighbours.
5) History - historically, heirloom seeds provide a link to the past and the gardening practices of previous generations. Each heirloom seed is a living capsule of history, and tells a story about the growers that bred them and where they were farmed. Growing heirloom seeds keeps a link to these cultural and ancestral roots.
In summary, planting heirloom seed varieties will enhance the diversity of your garden, encourage insect pollination, reduce the time spent managing pest populations, provide a bounty of delicious produce for your table and create a riot of colour for your garden. Soon a trip to the produce section of your local supermarket will be a distant memory, as you harvest, save and trade seeds from your own heirloom varieties, thereby, ensuring you know where your food comes from, and that it’s not the product of gene splicing or coated in harmful chemicals.