Guest Author - Jacqueline Rosenbalm
Let’s start by first examining what an heirloom plant is:
An Heirloom plant is a plant that is open-pollinated. That means if you plant the seed it will produce an exact copy of the original plant. Heirloom varieties are the product of careful selection by the farmers who grew them. They were hand selected for optimum performance, best taste and disease resistance making them very valuable to the farmer and his family. So valuable they handed the seeds down for many generations.
Why should we grow Heirloom plants today when so many hybrids are available?
It is my opinion that the oldest varieties of cultivated plants make the best crops, be it grains, fruits or vegetables. They are hardier, grow in the most diverse conditions and have the least disease. They also have the best flavors and nutritional value although they demand less attention they still provide the best yields. That is the reason they have been passed down for so many generations. Heirlooms are considered valuable processions because they guaranteed the family’s survival long before there were grocery stores to supply all of their needs.
Hybrids were bred for uniformity so they ripen at the same time, have tough skins so they can be picked by machine and shipped many miles without much damage. The trade-off is lower quality, less taste and much lower nutritional value. How many times have you bought beautiful looking produce in the grocery store only to discover it has virtually no taste? Tomatoes come to my mind as a good example of this.
What is a hybrid?
Hybrid plants are a combination of two different plant varieties with a desired quality, like higher yields or having no seeds. They are cross pollinated to produce a prolific producer or seedless variety. Although some may produce a strong yield they tend to be more susceptible to disease because they are grown in man-made conditions. More hybrids are being bred to be seedless varieties. Seed companies do this primarily to be able to patent the variety and claim it exclusively as their own, thus ensuring them the ability to charge more money for that variety. The seeds from a hybrid plant will not reproduce the same plant as the parent and in many cases they are sterile. If you grow hybrids you must buy more seed from the seed company every year. It is definitely a good deal for the seed company but not so much for the gardener.
How to pick the best performers for your garden:
When you find a variety that has been cultivated in the environment you live or in one similar to your own, you stand the best chance of having success growing that plant. I select my seeds by geographical location, area weather conditions, taste, production expectations and availability. All this information should be provided in the seed company’s description so you can make the best choice for your growing area. The duration of the plants productive cycle is also a great concern whether you are located in a short growing season or a long one. Make a garden plan and rotate your plants to reflect the season and harvest times of the vegetables to make the most of your growing space.
I prefer to use heirloom seed varieties exclusively avoiding GMO’s and hybrid seeds and plants. I also tend to experiment with different varieties every year to extend my selection and enrich my pantry with different flavors. Because I also save my seeds for the next season it provides me with a very diverse and viable seed collection at no further cost ensuring me of a sustainable future.
How do you save seeds for the next year?
I personally harvest the seeds from the strongest plants that produce well while growing in conditions that are not ideal for them. Less than ideal conditions might be considered poor soil, inadequate drainage or perhaps they produced well in drought conditions. I use this method because any plant can grow in optimum conditions but not so many can handle difficulty well. In my opinion this plant is the stronger of the two and the one most likely to be able to reproduce itself and survive the easiest. I want plants that are undemanding; disease and drought resistant but still produce well. I also prefer perennial plant varieties when available. Perennial plants are often available for harvest before others types in the early spring. I find that this selection process works best to have food to harvest for most of the year.
Let the selected plant, flower and go to seed. When the seeds are dry simply collect them in a paper envelope, mark the type of plant and the variety on the envelope. If your plant is a soft fruit cut it open and scoop out the seeds. Separate the seeds from the pulp and let dry in a sunny location. Shake off any dry pulp still clinging to the seeds and store them in the same manner described above. If you are saving more than one variety of tomato or other vegetable be sure to store the seeds in separate envelopes being sure to mark the variety. Store all the envelopes together in a waterproof container.
For other tips or information on how to live naturally and closer to the earth look at other articles on the Natural Living site. Please feel free to comment and share your experiences.