Learn the real differences between heirloom, hybrid, and GMO seeds and why I encourage beginners to purchase heirloom seeds from the start!
Heirloom Seeds for Beginners
“Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream.” -Josephine Nuese
Every winter I grab my stack of seed catalogs, cozy up next to my fireplace with a pen and paper in hand, and start dreaming of Spring. I live where it is cold, snowy, and definitely have 4 very distinct seasons.
You may live somewhere where it is warm, and you can practically garden year around (I am beyond jealous of you, by the way!). No matter where you live, or where I live, we can both still share something very special when it comes to gardening, and that my Friend, is heirloom seeds.
Who am I kidding? Let’s be honest here. I won’t paint a beautiful gardening scene. This is real life! As I type this, a good old-fashioned blizzard is underway outside of my window. Complete with road closures, drifts well past my knees, and snow blasting you like a sandstorm every time you step outside. Along with 50 mph winds, everything is a bit of a snowy disaster.
Thankfully we have not lost power and our animals are all safe and accounted for. Now, I am able to grab a cup of herbal tea, my pile of seed packets, catalogs, and a notebook and decide which varieties I am planting this year.
Here is a picture of my garden space in the wintertime.
Types of Seeds
First of all, let me start by sharing the different types of seeds and a bit about each one.
- Heirloom Seeds
- Hybrid Seeds
- GMO Seeds
- Open-pollinated seeds, which simply means they have been exposed to natural pollination from wind, birds, and insects.
- They have been passed down for generations (these are some of the seeds that our great-great grandparents were planting).
- Heirloom seeds are true to their kind. Seeds can be saved from these plants year after year.
- All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms.
- These seeds are the seeds commonly found in your local stores.
- Created by companies or scientists in labs by taking pollen from one plant to another to produce the best plant in their eyes.
- Not naturally pollinated.
- Artificially crossed for better production, beautiful fruit, etc.
- You cannot save the seeds from these plants because they will not grow properly. These seeds are intended to have the best of both world from two different plants. Let’s look at a tomato for example: One parent plant produces a lot of fruit, while one produces fruit all the same size. Combine the two and you have a hybrid tomato. Now when you harvest these tomatoes, and save the seeds for next year, these seeds will NOT produce a plant that is true to the type of either parent.
- If you are choosing to grow hybrids, you will have to repurchase seeds each year.
- A great choice that is available almost anywhere – do NOT feel bad about planting these seeds. There are wonderful varieties of hybrids to choose from.
- Personally, I have definitely planted my fair share of hybrids before. There is no shame in planting the seeds that are easily available to you. When I first started gardening over 20 years ago, I did not even see heirloom seeds at the store – they may have been there, but I did not know there was any difference.
- GMO is short for Genetically Modified Organisms.
- Not the same as hybrid seeds.
- These seeds have been altered with molecular genetic techniques.
- Not usually the seeds that you can purchase at your local big-box store.
- Unlikely to run across these seeds in your home-gardening seed catalogs.
- Generally, these seeds are purchased by farmers.
- I prefer to steer clear from these seeds and products made with them whenever I can. I look for a non-GMO label when I am shopping at the grocery store.
Why I Choose to Only Plant Heirloom Seeds
Where do I even start!? Heirloom seeds seriously make me do a happy dance! They have quickly become my absolute favorite type of seeds to plant year after year.
I was introduced to heirloom seeds from my dad; he purchased seeds from an heirloom company and encouraged me to check out their catalog after I moved out and started a garden of my own. My dad also purchased some heirloom tomato plants for me from a local greenhouse.
For the next couple of years, I continued to purchase seeds that were easily available to me, but I never went a year without at least a handful of the heirloom tomato plants.
- The taste! Seriously, THE BEST! Heirlooms taste does not compare to a tomato (or any veggie or fruit for that matter!) that you purchase at the store.
- The colors. Have you ever seen blue or purple corn? Purple, yellow, or red carrots? White, orange, or green tomatoes? Red, orange, yellow, or white watermelons? Golden or white beets? Can you tell I am excited? The list goes on and on!
- Preserving our lost heritage. When you purchase heirloom seeds, you are supporting all of the folks who have taken so much time and care saving these seeds.
- The stories. This is one of my favorite parts of heirloom seeds. From the hardy sweet corn developed in the mountains of Montana, to the peas found in King Tut’s Tomb, from the Treasured Melon of France, to the kale from England that stands 6-12 feet tall, and whose stalks can be made into walking canes. I mean, I never saw a story on the seed packets from the stores like these!
- Nutrition. There are some interesting studies that have been done, that show a decrease in nutrition from our food supply over the decades. There is a good chance that a lot of the heritage veggies contain more vitamins and minerals that the run-of-the-mill, mass-scale-variety grocery store produce.
Tips for Growing Heirloom Plants
Heirloom vegetables aren’t all that different than growing regular seeds. However, here are a few tips to help you succeed.
- Look for heirloom seeds locally. I have found them at my local small town stores. You may be surprised when you know what you are looking for!
- Go online or order directly from a catalog.
- Plan to purchase seeds as early as possible. January or February is my favorite time to dream of spring and snag some of the seed varieties I would like to plant. Know though, that even if you wait until March or April, there will still be a selection available, you may just miss out on a couple of your top picks. Plan ahead for next year to order a month or two earlier.
- Read the description. Very important, especially if you are gardening in a short season zone like me. How many days does it take for this plant to mature? What is a good climate to grow this variety in?
- Just pick a few. Heirloom seeds can be overwhelming because of the multiple choices of each vegetable or fruit. Start with one or two. Try them out and adjust for next year. Don’t be like me and plant 12 different varieties of tomatoes at one time….
What is the Safe Seed Pledge?
If you are purchasing seeds from a trusted source, you may see that they support the ‘Safe Seed Pledge”. This pledge is a voluntary pledge made by seed companies to not buy, produce, or sell GMO seeds.
The Safe Seed Pledge reads:
“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners, and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political, and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds.”
For more information on this project, contact:
The Safe Seed Initiative
C/O Council for Responsible Genetics
5 Upland Road, Suite 3
Cambridge, MA 02140
This was copied from one of the heirloom seed companies’ websites
Where to Buy Heirloom Seeds
Here are the top five heirloom seed companies that I highly recommend for homesteaders or home gardeners. These companies have all served me very well over the years and their seeds have performed extremely well.
This is my top choice for heirloom seeds. They have a gorgeous catalog, a wide variety (like over 1,800 different varieties) of every color of vegetable, flower, and herb imaginable, and they include a free seed packet with your order.
They are family-owned and have a beautiful farm in Missouri that you can visit, see them in production, and buy seeds all in one trip. This is definitely a dream trip that I will be taking one of these days! Click here to shop Baker Creek.
Seed Savers Exchange
This is the first heirloom company that my dad introduced me to. This company has a beautiful catalog that I enjoy flipping through, and they are a non-profit organization and focus on preserving seed varieties from families when they moved to North America.
They do a wonderful job educating folks about heirloom seeds and seed saving. They have a special vault where they keep seeds so that we don’t lose some of these precious and rare varieties of seeds. Click here to shop Seed Savers Exchange.
True Leaf Market
The first seeds I ordered from this company was when I wanted to grow microgreens during the winter. They had very quick shipping and a great kit to take care of my craving for something green in the dead of winter! While I have not had the opportunity to put my seeds in the garden yet, I am planning to this year.
True Leaf Market has a wide variety of items other than just seeds. Check out their different growing kits, jar lids, fermentation products, and food-safe 5-gallon buckets and lids. Click here to shop True Leaf Market.
Annie’s Heirloom Seeds
Annie’s was the ONLY company that I could find that carried the German Johnson Tomato variety that my dad purchased for me from the greenhouse each year. A smaller company with seeds sourced from around the world. Click here to shop Annie’s Heirloom Seeds.
Seeds for Generations
I have not had the opportunity to order from this company yet, but I am very excited to soon! Seeds for Generations is a family-run-business; Jason, his wife, and his kids run the business together. Small-family owned and operated businesses are something that I am searching for and who I love to support. Click here to shop Seeds for Generations.
What’s your favorite place to buy heirloom seeds?
Leave a comment with a link and 1-2 sentences why you like them, and I will add a couple of them to this post. Sharing is caring and we may never know about these wonderful companies if we don’t share.
Here are some recipes you might enjoy:
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