“Heirloom seeds are better, right?” It’s a question I hear a lot when I’m teaching classes on growing your own veggies. Just the term “heirloom” makes us think of precious family treasures, fine antiques. “Heirloom seeds” is a phrase that sells and many seed companies take full advantage of it.
Heirloom vegetables (or flowers) are varieties that have been in cultivation a long time—decades, if not centuries—and are still being grown today. They’re what your great grandmother would have sown in her garden. They’re the antiques of the gardening world.
To be sure, heirloom varieties have their assets. They often taste better, sometimes much better (and the flowers often have a stronger scent). Newer varieties may be selected for other qualities, and often those qualities are something only commercial growers would appreciate. Think of the thick skins on tomatoes that enable them to be shipped long distances without being squashed. In many cases, flavor is an afterthought.
Heirlooms are also important to the gene pool. Their genetic diversity is a vast resource for plant breeders seeking to improve the food we grow. When everyone grows exactly the same variety, we’re at risk from new diseases and pests. That’s why seed banks maintain thousands of cultivars that aren’t currently sold commercially, ensuring that their unique genes remain available and viable.
Another reason to grow heirlooms—they’re open pollinated, meaning that you should get a next generation of plants similar to the parent generation. This is essential if you want to save your own seeds (as gardeners did before there were seed companies).
However, for gardeners pushing the limits in short-season areas, or for those plagued with diseases (such as powdery mildew or cucumber mosaic virus), heirlooms may be a poor choice.
Newer varieties benefit from years of careful breeding, selecting for traits such as disease resistance or tolerance. You can know which varieties are resistant to which diseases by the letters after their name. Here’s a list of the most common labels:
V Verticillium Wilt
F Fusarium Wilt
FF Fusarium, races 1 and 2
FFF Fusarium, races 1, 2, and 3
T Tobacco Mosaic Virus
St Stemphylium (Gray Leaf Spot)
TSWV Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus
As an example, compare heirloom tomatoes (which have no disease resistance) the award-winning tomato Celebrity VFFNT. All those letters after the name indicate that this superstar is resistant to Verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilts (type 1 and 2), nematodes, and tobacco mosaic virus. Pretty impressive!
Another trait that breeders select for is early maturity. Even if you live in part of the country that has long, frost-free summers, it’s always nice to begin harvesting sooner rather than later. Plus, the longer plants are in the garden, the more likely it is that something bad will happen to them, such as a leaf-shredding hail storm, a voracious insect attack, or being devoured by rabbits or pocket gophers. Earlier is usually better.
Again taking tomatoes as an example—Brandywine is a popular heirloom variety, generally considered to be the best tasting tomato. According to the Totally Tomatoes catalog, it needs 90 – 100 days from transplanting until you can pick that first juicy, ripe fruit. The above-mentioned Celebrity, however, needs only 70 days. That difference is significant. I can actually harvest ripe Celebrity tomatoes from my high-altitude garden, while it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever get a mature Brandywine. Happily, Celebrity is plenty delicious as well.
Breeders have also increased our choices with new strains in exciting colors. Bright Lights Chard comes in a rainbow of hues; cauliflower now comes in purple and orange, each with higher nutrient levels. Size matters too. Dwarf cucumber vines need no trellising, growing as a bush. That’s a bonus for Colorado, with our cold, vine-stunting wind.
I used to grow Black-seeded Simpson, an heirloom leaf lettuce over 100 years old, and one of my favorites. Then I discovered Simpson Elite, an improved variety that is much slower to bolt. I think it tastes better, too, so now I grow that instead. Heirloom veggies can be fun to grow, but it’s worth comparing them to more recent, improved varieties.