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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

4 Advantages of Growing Heirlooms

It is miserable for a farmer to be obliged to buy his seeds; to exchange seeds may, in some cases, be useful; but to buy them after the first year is disreputable. 
George Washington, November 16, 1794 

There is little doubt, if you have an interest in hobby farming, that you have heard lots of debate about GMO versus non-GMO and heirloom seeds versus hybrids and the virtues and evils of seed saving.  I'm about to add to the discourse with my own educated opinion.  Of course, I hope to persuade you all to my point of view, but even if I do not, I'm glad to have the opportunity to open the conversation.  

Honestly, for me, the bottom line on deciding whether to use seeds that have naturally evolved over time versus seeds that have had manipulation by science comes down to this:  are you a home gardener or a commercial farmer?  It is as plain and simple as that.  

What are the definitions of the terms I'm using?  Let's start there:  
  • GMO - Genetically Modified Organism -  this is a plant or animal that has had a scientist alter the genes with DNA from other organisms to get specific traits.  Examples of those traits can be resistance to disease or ability to tolerate pesticides.  
  • Non-GMO - this is a plant or animal that has not gone through the artificial genetic engineering process.  
  •  Heirloom Seeds - These seeds are open-pollinated and will produce seeds that will grow plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant. 
  • Hybrid Seeds - The plants are the purposeful cross pollination of two different parent plants from the same species.  The seed produced will not be the same as the parent plant but a plant with different characteristics than the parents.  However, when that plant creates seeds, the plant that will grow from them will likely revert back to the original parent type.  The resulting seed with not produce the same plant in the second generation.  
  • Seed Saving - saving the seeds produced by a plant with the intention of growing the plant again from year to year. 
 So, George Washington expected farmers to save seed from year to year.  Of course, farms were smaller then and did not have scientists genetically engineering seed.  It is hard to know what he would say today.  I certainly think he would want to still be able to save his own seed and not be tied to purchasing seed every single year.  

Large commercial farms rely on GMO and Hybrid seeds because of the need to maximize their production and income per acre.  Seeds that will produce more output on less acreage and that produce plants that are more disease resistant and able to be transported over long distances makes some sense on a very large scale.   

But for the home gardener, it does not make sense to rely on a corporation to provide our seeds from year to year.  We do not require extremely large production from our plants and the food does not have to survive being transported miles and miles away before we eat it. 

Here are the four advantages I see for growing heirloom varieties in our home gardens:  

  • Taste and Nutrition:  We all know that a tomato straight from your own garden is far superior to the one that you get at the supermarket that is hard as a rock and been transported from a long way away.    The heirloom varieties often have a better level of nutrition specifically because they are not engineered to produce more vegetables than the plant and soil can support.  Mass produced vegetables have been shown to have lower levels of vitamins than home grown ones.   
  • Genetic Diversity and Large Selection:  Plants grown from heirloom varieties have naturally developed to thrive in the specifics to that garden area.  Since seeds are only saved from the most healthy plants, the good traits are passed to each generation of seed.  The plants naturally adapt to the climate, pests in the area and diseases that may be in the area too which will result in a higher level of gardening success.    There are thousands of varieties of heirloom seeds to choose from versus only a few of the scientifically engineered ones. 
  • Ability to Save and Trade Seeds:   Growing heirloom seeds saves a lot of money!  Because you can save the seeds from year to year, you do not need to go purchase seeds every single year.  Trading seeds with others is absolutely fun - a gardening version of trading baseball cards.   
  • Connection to the Past:  Wouldn't it be so fun to tell your guests at the next barbecue that the tomatoes in the salad were grown from seeds called Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter that was first grown in the 1930's?  Or maybe Cherokee Purple which dates back at least as far as 1890.   Maybe you even have seeds that tell a story, like the tomato named Emmy after the young woman who fled Romania after WWII with a tomato in her pocket.  Preserving our gardening heritage is an honorable pastime.     
I hope that you consider an heirloom plant or two this year in your garden.  There are not only vegetables available but also flowers and fruits too!  Two of my favorite catalogs to get me started are:  Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  

You can purchase this year but then save seeds at the end of the season for next year.  Some communities have started seed libraries where you can check out seeds, grow them, save the seeds and return them to the library.  Now that is one great way to serve a community!  I'm doing some research with The Seed Library Social Network to learn how to start this in my own community.  

I hope I've planted an heirloom seed into your thoughts today that will grow and blossom.  I'm truly looking forward to sharing 2015 with you as we learn together.  Thank you for joining me today. 

If you already grow heirlooms, I would love to hear which varieties you like.  Let me know in the comments....also, if you have any seeds to share to get a seed library started for the readers of this blog, let me know that too!  :)  

Tomorrow, I'll share with you a different kind of library - the Little Free Library and the great work that organization is doing.  I hope to see you then.  

Peace be with you, 

Star Schipp  

This post may contain affiliate links which means if you make a purchase using one of those links, I may receive compensation at no extra cost to you.  It is a great way to support your favorite hobby farm blogger.  Thank you!   

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