What Are Heirloom Seeds and Why to Grow Them

Rachel Lark - April 7, 2023

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Have you ever come across multi-colored tomatoes at the grocery store? You may notice a sign that calls them “heirlooms.” These types of fruits and vegetables are grown from different seeds than other produce — but what are heirloom seeds anyway? 

There are plenty of reasons to plant heirloom seeds at home — aside from mouth-watering flavors, they maintain ample genetic diversity. This guide will help define heirloom seeds and hopefully convince you to grow them yourself.

What Are Heirloom Seeds?

Heirloom produce derives from seeds passed down from generation to generation — open-pollinated cultivars that resemble the original plant it came from, having either self-pollinated or been naturally pollinated by similar plants.

Seed savers around the world have preserved the integrity of heirlooms. Most agree that true varieties must have endured since 1951 before the first hybrid heirloom seeds were cultivated. Some heirloom seeds are nearly 100–150 years old — however, several European crops could be 400 years old, while African and Asian growers may trace their origins even further.

For instance, European farmers have grown Paris White Cos lettuce since at least 1835. Meanwhile, Amish producers have grown Brandywine tomatoes since 1895.

There are four primary types of heirloom seeds today:

  • Family heirlooms: Seeds passed down to you from your own ancestors
  • Historical heirlooms: Seeds that maintain historical context from a specific grower or period
  • Regional heirlooms: Seeds that are long-adapted to a particular region
  • Heritage heirlooms: Seeds that resemble what was grown in places within your family history

Although hybrid varieties are commonly grown to reduce pest infestations and adapt to climate change, they won’t produce the same plant yearly — meaning they aren’t a true heirloom.

5 Reasons to Grow Heirloom Seeds

Whether you’re an avid gardener or still earning your green thumb, you may want to try growing heirloom seeds. Here are five reasons why you should grow heirloom produce at home.

1. They’re Non-GMO

There’s a lot of talk about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) reshaping our agriculture and food systems. Proponents of GMOs claim that they’ll save the global population from starvation, while opponents argue they aren’t worth the ecological damage they cause or their potentially harmful effects on humankind. For example, GMOs degrade soil quality and hinder future crop production. 

Seed saving — as in collecting heirloom seeds — enables the preservation of essential genetic traits for optimal food production. As a result, growers have a stronger bond with the land and harvests and can create a seed bank to share among nearby growers. 

Crops eventually adapt to their environment, while gardeners find they must irrigate and treat their plants less often. In turn, this ensures soil fertility, water conservation, and consistent production.

2. You Can Grown Them Organically

“Organic” is a choice — to grow organic heirloom seeds, you must follow a specific set of practices outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Organic Program. 

Examples of the USDA’s organic practices include the following:

  • Plants are grown in high-quality organic soil composed of compost, green manure, and animal manure without the use of sewage or biosolids
  • Must use only non-GMO seeds
  • Growers practice crop rotation to boost soil fertility, prevent erosion and pests, and promote biodiversity
  • Growers use PAMS — prevention, avoidance, management, and suppression — to protect yields from pest infestations
  • Organic crops are kept separate from non-organic crops

Look for the USDA Organic logo on soil and heirloom seeds to ensure your materials meet federal organic standards.

3. You Can Save the Seeds Each Year

Experts predict we’ve lost 75% of plant genetic diversity because of unsustainable agriculture and monocropping. There are also estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 plant species are on the verge of extinction.

Heirloom seeds may prevent further loss of this genetic diversity. Because heirlooms undergo open pollination, they produce the genetically-same plant year after year. That’s the advantage of seed-saving heirlooms — you reap the benefits of carefully-extracted and stable growth for years to come.

Avoid purchasing hybrid varieties to grow true heirloom vegetables and fruits. Hybrid seeds have undergone cross-pollination to generate other traits, such as different sizes, colors, and disease and pest prevention. Although this sounds like an advantage, they’ll lack specific characteristics that classify them as heirlooms. 

4. They Maintain Quality Assurance

Naturally, seeds passed down through generations maintain excellent flavor, nutrition, and growing power. They’ve adapted to regional conditions while other types fail to reach adequate yields. 

For instance, deer tongue lettuce dates back before the 1900s and has become exceedingly heat and drought resistant — a fast-growing crop that produces excellent yields as climate change wreaks havoc on farms.

Saving only the most successful heirloom seeds ensures more reliable produce growth in your garden each year. 

5. You’ll Have a Great Story to Tell

Of course, growing heirloom plants comes with a great story to share with others. Maybe the seeds have been passed down from your great-grandparents who brought them over from Europe — or perhaps they’re linked to a famous historical figure.

One great heirloom tale comes from the Crane family in Santa Rosa, California. The Cranes have grown their highly-localized, renowned melons for a hundred years since the family migrated from Missouri to look for gold. Oliver Crane began breeding Japanese and Persian varieties in 1920, which is what the family continues growing today.

Other examples include the Gniff carrot that made its way from Bre, Switzerland — an Alpine town — and the Jimmy Nardello chile pepper, brought to the U.S. from Southern Italy in 1887.

Where Do You Find Heirloom Seeds?

Now that we’ve answered the question, “what are heirloom seeds,” you may be wondering where to purchase them. You can buy heirlooms online or at a garden center. Keep in mind that hybrid seeds tend to be more expensive than traditional heirloom seeds.

If you look for heirloom seeds online, stores and nonprofit seed banks like the Seed Savers Exchange only sell true heirloom varieties. If you’re looking for specific hybrids or strictly organic heirloom seeds, you search for sellers.

Other options include asking for leftover seeds at local garden clubs or posting on your community’s social media pages. Growers usually have more seeds than they can plant at once and may be willing to share them with you.

Grow Heirloom Seeds At Home

Heirloom seeds are a marvelous tradition to start in your at-home garden. You’ll cultivate deeper ties to your garden and have something unique for your children, grandchildren, and generations after that.

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.