Home gardening has always been a popular hobby for many. It is also a great way for people to save money on produce, while also having the knowledge of where the food they are eating and feeding to their families has come from and how it was grown. But for many gardeners, the plants they grow are also a link to the past.
What is an heirloom garden?
Put simply an heirloom garden is one that contains heirloom plants. Well then what the heck is an heirloom plant? Well there are two common ways to define heirloom plants:
- · By age- In 1951 a process called hybridization, which we will address later in more detail, gained popularity. Plants that are grown from seeds that are from any plant that originated before this time can be considered heirloom
- · Open- Pollination- Another, perhaps more widely excepted definition is plants that are grown from seeds of plants that were grown in an earlier time period that are open-pollinated, a term we will discuss further as well. It is important to understand that while all heirloom plants must be open-pollinated, not all plants that are open pollinated are considered to be heirloom.
Many of these heirloom plants can be traced back hundreds of years. Many of the varieties of heirloom plants have a surprisingly rich history that involves being smuggled into this country sewn into the seams of clothing or the lining of suitcases. These heirloom plants also tend to have less uniform characteristics than more modern varieties and therefore produce a wide variety of vegetables that you simply can’t buy at the grocery store.
What is hybridization and how did it change plants?
Hybridization is a process of interbreeding between individual plants of a different species or the breeding of genetically divergent individual plants of the same species. Another words it is the process of combining to plants that are different in one way or another to form a new variety of a plant. By doing this, gardeners have been able to develop plants that exhibit more of the traits that they find desirable while playing down, or in some cases, doing away with the traits they find undesirable.
Hybridization can be used to change the outward appearance of a plant or it can change the inner characteristics of a plant to make them easier to grow or more appealing to consumers. Flowering plants, for example, can be bred to produce new and more visually interesting colors and markings on flowers. Vegetable and fruit producing plants can be bred for such things as to resist disease, have a longer shelf life, or to improve the plants ability to grow in varying environments.
It is important to note that this process is not to be confused Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMO’s. Hybridization deals strictly with the manipulation of natural traits of different plant varieties by breeding. The traits that are introduced through the process of producing GMO’s are not natural to the plant.
What is open-pollination?
To understand open-pollination, it is vital that you first understand what pollination is. Basically pollination is the birds and the bees of plants. The reproduction of seed plants is reliant on the transference of pollen. The pollen which is produced by the stamen of a flower and contains sperm cells is transferred to the stigma, which contains the ovary. Some plants are self-pollinating, which means their flowers have both a stamen and a stigma. These flowers are often referred to as perfect flowers and are often found on bean and pea plants. Plants that cannot self-pollinate rely on the transfer of pollen from other plants and are referred to as cross-pollenating plants.
When open pollination is practiced, different varieties of plants often cross pollenate. This means that the pollen containing the sperm cells of one plant is transferred to a plant of either the same or a different variety or species. While this does not always result in a new variety of plant, it can produce changes. Open pollination differs from hybridization because it is allowed to occur naturally, while hybrid pollenating (breeding) is controlled by human intervention to produce specific traits.
Seed saving is perhaps the most important element of heirloom gardening. It is also for many part of its appeal. There is a sense of being a part of history and the preservation of one of our most valued and sustainable traditions: the home garden. If not for others in the past diligently saving, storing, and passing along the seeds from their gardens, many heirloom plant varieties would not be around today.
The goal of seed saving is to preserve existing varieties of plants in an unaltered state. This means that the seeds will produce the same variety when planted and will not be effected by cross-pollination. Here are some seed saving basics:
- Plants with perfect flowers (self-pollinators) usually pollinate themselves before the flowers open which makes cross-pollination rarely an issue
- Isolate your heirloom plants. Sometimes simply distancing your plants will be sufficient, but different plant varieties in close proximity might require an actual barrier to prevent cross pollination.
- Only save seeds from the best of what is produced from each plant
- Always be sure to label seed rows when planting and to keep your seeds labeled and organized when harvesting them. It is easy to forget of mix up what variety was planted where, it is always better to be sure
- Learn to recognize plant diseases and be sure to not save seeds from plants that have been infected
- Be sure to have proper storage for your seeds. If not stored properly all of your hard work can be for nothing if the seeds are damaged or no longer viable
- If you are new to seed saving keep in mind that bean and pea seeds are often the easiest to harvest and save
Where to find heirloom seeds?
While many local nurseries might carry some heirloom plants and seeds the selection is likely to be limited. For those of you looking for more of a selection of heirloom varieties there are many online resources. Here are just a few to get you started:
Seed Savers Exchange Is a non-profit organization that has been around since 1975 and is dedicated to the saving and sharing of heirloom seeds. There is a lot of great information about heirloom plants on this website as well as an online shop where seeds can be ordered.
Heirloom Seeds Is an online seed ordering website that boasts over 1450 heirloom varieties available!
Victory Seeds Sells rare open-pollinated heirloom garden seeds
Burpee A well know known in the world of seeds and plants, Burpee has a wide selection of heirloom seeds that are easy to find on their website under the Heirloom category.