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Heirloom seeds: Why you should buy them and where to find them

An heirloom (as most people know), is something of value – be that monetary or sentimental – that has been passed down from generation to generation through the years. Often, it’s a piece of jewelry like a wedding ring or expensive necklace or a furniture item like a Tiffany lamp or an armoire or cedar chest. Other common examples of family heirlooms include recipes, letters, military medals, land or property, wedding dresses, quilts, and photo albums.

My family doesn’t have a lot of heirlooms in the jewelry, furniture, or art variety, mainly because my mom is a first-generation American whose parents immigrated with very little and most of the antiques my dad’s parents owned were stolen years ago when their farmhouse was robbed while they were in Florida for the winter.

We do have recipes and photo albums – and seeds. My dad is the son of a third-generation farmer and a woman who grew up Amish, leaving the community to marry my grandfather at the age of sixteen (yes, there’s a whole interesting story there that has nothing to do with seeds). My dad grew up on a dairy farm where they also grew much of their own food, saving the seeds from harvest to harvest to replant every season. He brought some along with him when he left home and, eventually, they became part of our family garden every year, making them heirloom seeds (though as a child, I don’t recall ever hearing them called that).

What are heirloom seeds?

Once upon a time, families survived on their own homegrown produce out of necessity, not because it was fashionable or trendy to do so. They saved seeds from their harvest, often exchanging their favorites with neighbors and passing them down to their children. These are what are now referred to as heirloom seeds.

A simple definition of heirloom seeds is “seeds from a plant that has been saved and passed down through generations.”

Some have been grown, saved, and shared for hundreds of years. The value of such seeds is in their flavor, hardiness, productivity, and/or adaptability. Most companies selling heirloom seeds today can provide a documented heritage of each of their seeds being passed down from generation to generation. Some say that a true heirloom seed must be from a fruit, flower, or vegetable grown before World War II.

Heirloom plants are “open-pollinated” which means this occurs by wind or insects without human assistance. They are never genetically modified organisms (GMO).

While some heirloom seeds may require a bit more attention to grow to maturity (they haven’t been chemically modified to resist disease and pests), most people think the yields are worth it. And the truth is that if a seed has persisted for at least a hundred years, it must have some natural resistance to common pest ailments.

Heirloom seeds for sale

Today, like most everything else, heirloom seeds can be purchased online. There are numerous, reputable companies offering heirloom seeds for sale. Keep in mind that some companies sell hybrid seeds as well as heirloom varieties. Hybrid plants are the result of the cross-pollination of different plants to highlight and maximize the best features of each plant. They are not considered open-pollinated or heirloom, though they can be non-genetically modified and organic.

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Seed Savers, a non-profit organization “dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds,” collects and stores thousands of rare open-pollinated seed varieties. On their 890-acre Heritage Farm headquarters in Iowa, they also maintain a backup collection at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

One of the significant things that Seed Savers offers is an online seed exchange where members request, list, and exchange heirloom seeds of all kinds. Once you’ve registered for an online account, you add seeds found in the exchange to your wish list which will then generate requests that you can print out to send to the lister of the seed (along with a payment form). You can also list any non-patented seeds that you are in possession of through the exchange – it’s like an Etsy but for seeds only.

Baker Creek heirloom seeds

Formed in 1998 by Jere Gettle, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is now one of the largest heirloom seed companies in North America. Their headquarters in Mansfield, Missouri consists of gardens, greenhouses, a seed store, and a full-on replication of a pioneer village. They also run a seed store in Petaluma, California.

The pioneer village, called Bakersville occupies the land of what many purport to be the longest-lasting homestead in Missouri. The homestead began in the mid-1800s when the Rippee family, inspired by the Homestead Act, moved west. The family traded with the Osage Nation and offered care and shelter for soldiers during the Civil War. The Baker Creek Seed Store was built where the Rippee family market garden once was. There is no charge to visit the village and experience a bit of what pioneer life was like. The village includes a restaurant, mercantile and apothecary, blacksmith, jail, and rock oven.

Baker Creek hosts festivals every year including the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California and a Spring Planting Festival at the Missouri homestead. In 2022 (after a two-year hiatus), The Spring Planting Festival will be held on May 8th and 9th. Tickets are $20 per vehicle.

The free Baker Creek Catalog includes a selection of their most popular seeds. They also print a Whole Seed Catalog which includes everything they sell along with histories of seeds, recipes, and articles. It can be purchased at select retailers or online here.

A couple of plants that caught my eye while perusing the free catalog version were the Chinese Python Snake Bean and the Pusa Asita Carrot.

At up to 60 inches long and 1 ½ inches wide, the Chinese Python Snake Bean is the largest of its kind. While most often used in stir-fries with peppers and onions, scooping out the insides of a mature python snake bean will reward you with something akin to tomato paste. Growing this plant requires a strong trellis so the bean can climb freely and widely.

The Pusa Asita Carrot from India sports a wonderfully deep purple color, a result of having abundant amounts of the plant-based antioxidant, anthocyanin. According to the listing, the flavor is richer and sweeter than that of your average, run-of-the-mill, orange carrot. And they’re much more tolerant of heat than other carrots.

Heirloom seed catalogs

As well as Baker Creek, there are other companies that peddle heirloom seeds, some of them specializing in a specific niche.

All of these ethically responsible companies sell seeds with germination rates of at least 90%, promote biodiversity, and provide excellent customer service. This is by no means a complete list; these are just some of the ones that have always stood out to me and the catalogs I most enjoy looking through (if I had to narrow it down – which I did to keep this article from being the length of a Russian novel).

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Kitazawa has specialized in Asian seeds for 105 years. They have over 500 varieties of Asian vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers. They’re your source for difficult-to-find seeds for things like Vietnamese herbs, Japanese radishes, and Chinese cabbage. Their no-frills catalog is available as a PDF download here.

As of January 2022, owners Maya Shiroyama and Jim Ryugo turned the stewardship of the company over to True Leaf Market.

Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seeds puts out a seed catalog that features farmer, gardener, and grower profiles as well as their seeds. As well as selling organic open-pollinated heirloom seeds, they also stock hybrid seeds (also organic).

In 1999, they developed the Safe Seed Pledge, a statement against genetic engineering of any kind.

Seed Savers publishes a large, beautiful, color catalog that features newly added seeds for the year as well as articles about heirloom seed gardeners. They specialize in rare seeds and re-germinating old and endangered varieties so they are not lost forever.

Based in Maine, Fedco specializes in cold hardy seed varieties that have adapted to the climate of the Northeast. They send out three catalogs annually and carry trees, bulbs, and organic growing supplies, as well as seeds.

Unlike most other seed companies in the U.S., Fedco is a cooperative; 60% is owned by consumers and 40% is owned by workers. They encourage customers to form group orders with neighbors, co-workers, club members, and/or friends to take advantage of their “generous volume discounts.”

I love the Fedco Seed catalog for its creative and whimsical black and white illustrations – and extensive and clear planting and growing instructions.

Heirloom vegetable seeds

Heirloom vegetable seeds are available for purchase from any of the above companies, as well as many others. A few that I find myself gravitating to include MIGardener, a small Michigan company that only sells seeds grown by small family farms and Filaree Garlic Farm in Washington for all your garlic (and garlic related) needs, and Victory Seeds, which is a small company in Oregon especially dedicated to preserving and promoting the use of both family heirloom and old commercial releases of open-pollinated seeds.

Dating back to the 19th century, lemon cucumber seeds produce round, yellow fruit with low amounts of cucurbitacin, which is the bitter-tasting naturally occurring cucumber chemical. Lemon cucumber plants sprout in 7 to 14 days and do best in full sun and temperatures between 70 F and 90 F. Consider growing your lemon cucumbers on a trellis to save space (go up rather than out).

Guiseppe and Angella Nardiello immigrated from the Basilicata region of southern Italy to the United States in 1887 with their daughter and their pepper seeds. They made a home in Naugatuck, Connecticut where they raised eleven children along with their peppers.

The peppers came to be known by the name of one of the children; Jimmy Nardello. Shortly before his death in 1983, Nardello donated his pepper seeds to the Seed Savers Exchange. Known as Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Peppers, they fry up exceptionally well and are one of the most popular heirloom pepper seeds.

This cabbage dates back to 1902 in the Netherlands where it was traditionally planted as a midseason variety. Tender and crisp, Glory of Enkhuizen cabbage is often used in slaws, salads, soups, and kraut.

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The light green, medium-large heads grow best in partial shade and well-draining soil with temperatures between 50F and 70F.

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Rattlesnake pole beans, so-called because their shelled beans are beige with rattlesnake streaks when dry, produce dark green pods with purple streaks that fade when cooked.

Sow after all danger of frost has passed four to six inches apart and one inch deep. Use trellises or stick triangles to keep them upright. Rattlesnake snap beans are especially drought resistant. They should be ready to harvest 65 days from planting.

Long before Daenerys proclaimed Kahl Drogo her moon and stars (and sun), there was the Russian heirloom, Moon and Stars watermelon.

They get their name from their dark rind speckled with bright, gold dots and one, large, gold circle (AKA: the moon). Weighing up to forty pounds each, their flesh is sweet and juicy. Direct sow outside after the danger of frost has passed or start indoors. Watermelon does best in full sun with rich soil (add compost if needed).

Heirloom tomato seeds

Anyone who has ever spent time with other gardeners knows that people obsess about their tomato plants. While they are technically seed-bearing ovaries of a flower or fruit, tomatoes are commonly referred to as vegetables. This is partially the result of an 1893 Supreme Court hearing that declared that since the tomato was generally served during dinner, and not dessert (as fruits were), it was a vegetable – and subsequently subject to the 1887 10% vegetable tax which was the reason for the Supreme Court case in the first place.

Whether called vegetable or fruit, growing flavorful tomatoes has been a favorite pastime of gardeners for years. I personally love a tomato that you can pluck straight from the vine and eat on its own, fruit-like.

You can start most tomato seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost. Use a heat mat to warm the soil and encourage germination.

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