There’s no agreement on what makes a vegetable an heirloom, and no one reason that people grow them, but that doesn’t mean these are complicated or dubious crops – in fact the heirloom varieties are probably the most loved, most reliable and tastiest crops in the world.
Defining Heirloom Vegetables
There are three different approaches to defining an heirloom vegetable:
- The historic approach – while some people pick pre‐industrial agriculture as the point at which vegetables became ‘heirloom’ others say it’s a hundred years ago or fifty years ago or even the cut‐off date of 1951 which is when hybrid seed was first introduced on a wide basis, this school of thought says that you can define an heirloom vegetable by its date of origin.
- The usage approach – most taken in the USA, this definition says that any cultivated variety that has been selected for its qualities, nurtured by small farmers and householders and handed down through families and communities for several generations is an heirloom
- The commercial approach – this is the most controversial approach and it requires acceptance that seed companies are instrumental in keeping ‘commercial’ heirloom vegetables alive – these are seeds that have become household names or are chosen over and over again by individual purchasers who have therefore worked with the seed company to keep the heirloom vegetable in cultivation.
All three approaches have one common thread: that the vegetable (or fruit or flower) must be open‐pollinated. This means that they are pollinated by insects, birds, air currents or some other natural means. Open pollination is uncontrolled which means that the resulting plants may vary quite widely in their genetic traits. It allows for a wider range of biodiversity than closed or controlled pollination which is known as cleistogamy. Closed pollination or controlled pollination both limit the range of genetic diversity available to the plant.
Why Grow Heirloom Vegetables
Most people are motivated by one or both of two desires:
- to keep these old and much‐loved crops in circulation
- taste and flavour.
There are thousands of heirloom vegetable varieties available for purchase through seed companies or through swapping seed with others. These varieties are grown widely but not usually for sale in supermarkets or greengrocers, simply because something about them: their limited storage life, their appearance, their shape or colour, doesn’t fit with the standardised, long‐shelf‐life approach that is necessary to sell vegetables.
This means that growing an heirloom crop can be an adventure of new experiences: sweet white carrots and tangy brown tomatoes, spiky cucumbers that explode to spread their seed and tiny red‐hot radishes ‐ all these are available to grow at home and offer something special to the home grower. Because they may not have a vast crop or may be too fragile to transport, they will never be found on a shop shelf but they may outperform any commercial variety in terms of flavour or ease of growth.
How to Find Heirloom Seed
Many seed companies now specialise in selling heirloom seed only and even the biggest commercial seed companies now have a few lines of heirloom stock. Seed swaps are a great way to find local heirlooms that grow well in your region but might not perform well elsewhere. Many people offer swap seed online, but check importing rules before swapping seed from abroad, as diseases can be carried in seed that then spread through a new region with devastating effect.
Growing Heirloom Seed
There’s nothing easier than growing an heirloom variety – because they are open pollinated you generally don’t have to cosset them the way you do more fragile F1 and other hybrid seeds. Locally adapted seed should perform well in the conditions for which it has been selected over generations, so many people find heirloom crops are actually more robust and straightforward to raise they expected. And of course, you get to save seed for the next year from your current crop too!