Heirloom Vegetable Power: Why Old Seed is New Again

A diverse collection of dried heirloom beans.

Every seed has a story.  When it comes to heirloom vegetable seeds, those with great stories have been nurtured for hundreds and thousands of years by diverse peoples worldwide. Many heirlooms have been lost in time, but some have been preserved, bringing with them wonderful traits that tell us something about the people who grew them and the environments where they were grown.

For millennia, farmers across the globe developed their own local crop varieties—selecting for flavor, production, and resilience. These became the foundation of modern breeding, but many old varieties were lost when modern breeding took hold. Thankfully, some old crops cultivated in harsh climates using ancient agricultural methods have remained in continuous cultivation. These are being collected and assessed for their adaptability to a changing climate. The potential for increased genetic adaptability of these ancient crops may help future farmers (and gardeners).

Native American Heirlooms

In the Southwest, for example, the selection of agricultural varieties was done by many Pueblo tribes who farmed the desert in innovative ways.  Waffle gardens and the Three Sisters methods of Layout 1planting were both used.  Corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers were the favored crops, but others were also grown. The seed strains chosen were selected over thousands of years to become the original diet of the tribes.

After losing many indigenous heirloom seeds over the 20th century, Native Seed/Search, was formed. This nonprofit organization in Tucson, Arizona is dedicated to preserving desert vegetable varieties.  Not only do they sell the seeds abroad, but they also make them available to local tribes for their farms and gardens. This keeps crops in perpetual cultivation and helps local tribespeople maintain healthy diets and combat diabetes. Groups like Native Seed/Search protect heirloom strains and their ancient genetics for the future.  By purchasing and saving these, gardeners also help maintain them for future generations.

Heirloom Seed Sources

Other heirloom seed sources offer crops from across the globe, but gardeners in the arid or hot regions should opt for those collected from places with significant heat and drought. Israeli growers have many named varieties developed for their dry climate.  Similarly, many heirloom tomatoes made it out of Iraq early on and are offered by seed catalogs.  Italian varieties and Greek heirlooms are also heated loving and easy to find.  With a little geography, you can match origins to your local conditions to create the perfect marriage of adaptability to flavor and yield. Just be sure to check when choosing an heirloom variety from your favorite seed catalog.

Seed Saving Workshops 1
Native Seed/SEARCH works with local tribes to rekindle their heritage strains and agriculture.

The slow perusal of seed catalogs as the snow flies is a time-honored gardener’s ritual of winter. Though you must await delivery, studying heavily illustrated seed catalogs in January and February allows you to make your list leisurely, then order online. Keep in mind that not all seed is an heirloom, so check before ordering. In addition to Native Seed/Search, we recommend Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Heirloom Seeds, Seeds of Italy, Seed Savers Exchange, and Victory Seeds as reliable heirloom seed sources. Those needing seed in a pinch might also find racks of heirlooms and boutique seed at garden centers.

Be sure to wash and sterilize last year’s pots before reusing, or just buy peat pots.

Heirlooms are open-pollinated and true to the parent. This means the seed is non-hybridized, field-collected, and will yield plants that are genetically similar to the parent plants. It also means that you can save your own heirloom seed. Think of each packet you buy as the start of a long, and hopefully fruitful relationship.  After you grow it the first year, save the seed to plant next year. Over time, a gardener can grow lots of different heirlooms and accumulate a nice seed collection of old standbys and new discoveries with each spring garden.  (Check out our heirloom tomato seed-saving video to learn an easy technique to harvest your own seed for the future. There are also seed-saving workshops and other resources at Seed Savers Exchange.)


Potting Heirloom Seeds

Once you place your seed order, the next step is to start saving salad boxes for sprouting seeds.  They hold in moisture helping your heirlooms to sprout safe and sound in protected conditions. You’ll need a bag of Black Gold Seedling Mix to fill the boxes! (Click here for my full step-by-step guide to seed starting.)

Next, organize your small pots from last year to hold the little sprouts after they transplant from the seed box. Wash the pots well, then dip them in a 10% bleach solution and air dry.  If you don’t save pots, newly purchased seedling flats do nicely as do small peat pots.  (Just remember to peel the peat off when planting peat pots because it can impede the speed of root growth into natural soil.)  When transplanting in the ground, supplement the planting area with OMRI Listed Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix to help your seedlings develop large root systems fast.

BG-WATERHOLD_1cu-FRONTWhether a great heirloom vegetable was cultivated a state away or on the other side of the world, growing and saving heirloom vegetables brings all of humanity together. By growing and saving your own heirloom seeds, you carry on a time-honored tradition and become a link in the chain of sustainability.

Heirloom Vegetable Seed Saving

These ripe heirloom vegetables contain seeds that are ready to harvest and store for the next year.

Seed saving is easy, saves money, and ensures that your seeds have come from a reliable source (your garden!). Smart seed saving requires that you (1) allow your seeds to fully mature, (2) clean your seeds properly, (3) store your seeds correctly, and (4) know exactly what you are saving and storing. Step 4 is probably the most essential and least understood.

Seed-saving gardeners want to collect true-to-parent seed that performs like the parent plants, but this requires a basic understanding of heirlooms, hybrids, and pollination. Will the tomato seed you are saving be a true-to-parent heirloom, or are you saving the anomalous, mystery progeny of a hybrid? To answer these questions, you must know your vegetable varieties and their hybrid statuses.

Hybrid Seeds

Lycopersicon esculentum 'Early Girl' JaKMPM
Hybrids, such as this F1 hybrid ‘Early Girl’ tomato, do not produce true-to-parent seed.

If you bought any F1 hybrids, then these vegetables were hybrid crosses between two carefully selected, known parents. Hybrids are more vigorous and have desirable traits that make them special—such as added disease and pest resistance and great fruit production. With F1 hybrids, crop performance wins, but seed saving doesn’t because they don’t yield true-to-parent seeds. The only way to grow a given hybrid each year is to purchase new seed from a vendor. Hybrid seed is also more expensive because the hybridization process takes more time and money.

So, what if you did collect F1 hybrid seed? What do open-pollinated hybrids yield? Their seed would produce unstable variations of the parent plants. For example, take the slicing tomato ‘Big Red’, which is a disease-resistant F1 cross between the two tomato varieties, ‘Pritchard’ x ‘Jubilee’. An open-pollinated ‘Big Red’ may cross with other garden tomatoes, which will introduce variation. In addition, the saved seed would also yield plants with a mix of traits representing the original parents, ‘Pritchard’ and ‘Jubilee’. What a mess! There is no way to know what you might get.

Heirloom Seeds

Heirlooms, such as these ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes, are reliable in producing true-to-parent seed.

Open-pollinated heirloom varieties are more stable. This means that you can collect them from year to year, and the collected seed will be like the parents, with few exceptions. For example, if you save seed from ‘Brandywine’ (1889), ‘Black Krim’ or ‘Gold Medal’ (1921) tomatoes, the seed will produce plants much like the parents.

On occasion, an unexpected variant might arise in saved heirloom seed. It is up to the gardener to assess whether new variant should be maintained. If a mystery plant appears with desirable traits, then maybe you have found something special, and selection is in order. Selection means carefully choosing variants over generations for desirable traits, such as large and tasty fruit, good growth habit, and productivity.

There are many seed vendors that specialize in open-pollinated heirlooms that can be saved with confidence. The Seed Savers Exchange is one of the oldest and most reliable sources of old, heirloom varieties.

Collecting, Cleaning, and Storing Seeds

Packets of seeds ready to store. (Note that the dill seed contains some chaff.)

On average, seeds cost around $3.00 a packet, so you can save money by collecting your own. Good, viable seed can only come from fully mature fruits. This means that bean or okra pods, husks of corn, or tomato and pepper fruits must be fully dry, colored, and ripe before collection.  You might also consider leaving a few herbs, carrots, lettuce, beets, and radishes to flower and set seed for collection, in addition to the more obvious fruiting crops.

Dry Seed Cleaning

This Indonesian winnowing basket, called a Nyiru, was created for rice.
This Indonesian winnowing basket, called a Nyiru, was created for cleaning rice seed.

It is easy to collect seeds from dry or open fruits. For example, pepper seeds can be lightly scraped from cavities (beware of spicy fingers from hot peppers!), poppy seeds shake out of dry capsules, and corn kernels pop off of dry ears. This process, called threshing, may be clean or messy, depending on the seeds and their fruits.

Threshed  seeds often contain chaff (unwanted bits of dry plant material, dirt, and insects), which can be picked out by hand, sifted off, or removed by winnowing. Winnowing is the process of removing the lighter chaff from the heavier seed by tossing it in the air and allowing the wind to carry the chaff away.

Winnowing baskets were created across cultures to assist with this process. These can still be purchased today and used for home seed cleaning.

Water winnowing is another option for dry seeds. Here, very small seeds are placed in a bowl of water. The seeds will settle to the bottom, and the chaff will float to the top. Then the water can be gently poured away until the seeds are left at the bottom. The seeds can be gently picked up with a paper towel to dry.

Wet Seed Cleaning

Fermenting ‘Red Currant’ tomato seeds

The seeds of fleshy, wet fruits require more elaborate cleaning steps. Tomato seeds are the messiest to save. The juicy fruits have seeds with a slimy membrane that should be removed to ensure good storage and germination.

In nature, the fruits are eaten by animals and the seeds pass through and out, membrane free, but this is hardly helpful for the seed collector. Two-day fermentation is the easiest way to naturally remove the seed membranes.

Start by cutting open the tomatoes and scraping out seeds from the fruits. Place them in a clear, lidded glass or jar. Add 2 to 3 inches of clean tap water. Lightly cover and allow the seeds to sit for one to two days, or until the contents become frothy on top. Pour the contents through a sieve and rinse the seeds in water until clean. Allow them to dry completely on a clean, dry towel.

BG-Seedling-1.5cuPumpkin, melon, and cucumber seeds can simply be scooped and cleaned in a fine colander under warm running water. Pieces of membrane may need to be picked away from the pumpkin or squash seeds. The clean seeds will be a little slippery, but that is okay. Dry the seeds on a light colored towel before packaging.

Package and label the seeds before storage. Plain paper packets are best. Number 1 coin envelopes are the perfect size and shape. Be sure to label each with the plant name and date, for consistency. Store the packets in a lidded paper box kept in a cool, dry place.

Then, towards winter’s end, break out the Black Gold Seedling Mix, plant up your seeds, and start your vegetable garden planning anew.