How to Garden with Heirloom Seeds

Heirloom plants have gained popularity in recent years. But are they right for your garden? Our expert guide will help you decide.

Gardening with heirloom seeds

Gardening with heirloom seeds

Heirloom plants for sale! Photography by Jere Gettle.


By Ann Wied
Waukesha County, Wisconsin

After reading up on our Feb/Mar 2012 Cover Girl (her family farm and seed company boast the largest selection of heirloom seeds in the country) your curiosity may be piqued about heirloom plans. Heirloom plants, such as Brandywine and Roma tomatoes, have certainly gained in popularity in recent years. But what exactly is an heirloom, and is it right for your garden?

As the name implies, heirlooms are old-fashioned varieties unchanged by modern plant breeding. Their characteristics remain stable from one generation to the next. They are generally open-pollinated, meaning the pollen is carried between plants by wind, insects or birds. You’ll notice that the plants look similar to one another but are not identical.

Heirloom varieties are generally at least 50 years old, often much older. Gardeners carefully save the seeds from generation to generation because they so prize the flavor, hardiness, scent or other qualities.

They’re also careful to destroy any unusual plants that could cross-pollinate and change the heirloom’s characteristics.

That’s in sharp contrast to hybrids. Hybrid is a strictly defined term in the seed industry, and producers deliberately control pollination to strengthen desired qualities of the plant. Gardeners and commercial growers often seek “hybrid vigor” for better seedling survival, larger and stronger plants, disease and insect resistance, more uniform produce and higher yields. Celebrity and Early Girl tomatoes are examples of hybrids that have been popular for years.

You shouldn’t save seeds from hybrids. The resulting plant won’t be like the parent plant, but will show an unpredictable mix of characteristics from the grandparent plants.

What’s right for you? Before you buy, compare the characteristics of each variety with the qualities
you want, and see which are best suited to your growing area. Local Master Gardeners and your county extension office can fill you in on potential problems.

To learn more about seed saving, visit the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange at, or read the University of Minnesota Extension’s tips on saving vegetable seeds here.

About our Expert: Ann Wied is consumer horticulture educator for the UW-Extension in Waukesha County, Wisconsin.

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