Advancements in bioengineering have created a plethora of seeds for the garden. Vegetables and flowers come in just about every size, shape and color. In addition, modern science has developed or bred plants resistant to many common ailments such as powdery mildew and Fusarium wilt.
With all these advances, it is interesting to see old varieties making a comeback. The rising interest in these so-called heirlooms stems from the natural and organic movement.
Heirlooms have many definitions, ranging from seeds that have been passed down from family to family, to seeds that are open pollinated, to varieties released prior to World War II. Basically, heirloom seeds come back true to their original form year after year. Modern seeds are hybrids resulting from a specific cross between two parents. Planting offspring from a hybrid may not produce a plant like the original. Many times, offspring revert back to one of the parents.
Growing the old varieties can be rewarding, as they often possess traits that have been lost through modern hybridization. But there are often less desirable traits as well.
Heirlooms evolved long before resistance to genetic disease or insects was possible. Take, for example, the Brandywine tomato, an heirloom that has probably the best flavor of any variety but can be a challenge to grow. It lacks disease resistance, making it susceptible to wilt that can wipe out the crop. This is a disappointment after you’ve gone to all the time and trouble to start seedlings and lovingly nurture them to maturity in the garden.
In addition, the Brandywine’s fruit cracks easily; modern tomatoes are firm and resist cracking, with improved quality.
Bioengineering has, for the most part, also shrunk the size of modern plants while enhancing the edible part for increased productivity. Developing smaller plants helps them fit into today’s smaller gardens. Older varieties tend to be rangy and less productive per unit area. Brandywines can reach 8 to 10 feet, while new tomato varieties may reach only 4 feet.
Heirloom seeds are easily saved from season to season with no loss in characteristics. Because of the risk of carrying over disease problems from year to year, be careful when saving or giving seeds away to other gardeners.
Pay careful attention to the source: Heirloom seeds should come from a reliable supplier or grower that can be trusted to maintain healthy, vigorous plants. Finding a reputable supplier is not difficult; seed catalogs and the internet are full of heirloom seeds.
Whether you choose heirlooms or the newer varieties, the good news is that you are gardening! The renewed interest in growing vegetables is wonderful, as more of us experience the joys of harvesting our food from our gardens, not from a plastic bag from the store.
Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to email@example.com or visit KCGardens.KansasCity.com