Varieties of heirloom vegetables have existed for 50 to 100 years or more. The seeds of these plants were saved and passed down to future generations. Many are open-pollinated, meaning they are pollinated by wind or insects, while others are self-pollinated. The next generation of plants that comes from these seeds is true to type, meaning they maintain their qualities year after year.
With the development of newer hybridized varieties with improved characteristics, heirloom vegetables fell into disfavor. However, in recent years, heirloom varieties have started making a comeback with gardeners planting them in ever-increasing numbers. Why? Generally speaking, heirlooms have better taste and tenderness than the newer hybrid varieties.
Hybrid varieties are the result of cross pollination of two distinctly different plant varieties with desirable traits that have been inbred over multiple generations. Their progeny have certain favorable characteristics such as disease resistance, larger fruit, uniform maturity, and the ability to be stored longer after harvesting. Heirloom varieties frequently lack these traits. The seeds of hybrid plants rarely produce plants resembling the parent plants and are not suitable for saving.
Seed saved from heirloom varieties and sown the following growing season will produce plants that are identical to the parent plant. There is some risk of cross pollination in open-pollinated vegetables such as squash, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbages and radishes. They could produce seeds that are not true to type. To reduce the chances of this occurring, do not plant more than one variety of each heirloom vegetable. However, self-pollinating vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans, seldom cross-pollinate. Their seeds can be saved from year to year without having to isolate the varieties.
To save seeds of heirloom vegetables, gather the seeds from the healthiest and strongest growing plants. Let the plant or fruit fully mature, allowing the fruit to become large and over-ripened. Then remove the seeds. Those that have a lot of pulp attached to them, such as tomatoes, squash, and cantaloupe, should be placed in a jar of water for a few days. Rinse the seeds off, remove any remaining pulp, and then spread the seeds out paper to dry.
Peas, beans and corn should be allowed to turn yellow and dry on the vine or stalk. Remove the seeds and let them dry in a dark, warm place. For lettuce, spinach, cabbage and some herbs, let seed heads form on stalks after the blossoms fade. Cut the stalks and hang them in a cool location out of sunlight for drying. You may want to put a bag around them to collect seeds that drop. When the seeds have dried out, place them in a tightly closed glass jar, add some silica gel packets to the container to keep it dry, and store the jar in a refrigerator to increase the amount of time the seeds can remain viable.
Heirloom plants are definitely worth planting. Although they may lack some of the beneficial aspects of the modern hybrids, heirloom vegetables are valued for their superior flavor. If properly stored, their seeds can provide vegetables with the same desirable traits year after year.
Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.