Heirloom seeds refer to seeds passed down from generation to generation. Early Americans and their European ancestors typically saved their own seed to preserve the original flavor and appearance. With the onset of commercial production, growers sought to breed plants for desired characteristics, such as long shelf life, resistance to disease, and tough skins that could withstand machine harvesting, packing and shipping. Crossbreeding resulted in hybrids that retained specific traits. According to the University of Illinois Extension, flavor and fragrance were often lost in favor of other desirable traits. Heirloom seeds preserve those original flavors, colors and fragrances.
Prepare garden soil in an area that receives at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day. Till to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Remove stones, roots and other plant debris. Rake the area smooth.
Test the soil to determine its condition and pH level. Inexpensive soil test kits available at your local hardware store or home improvement center provide a quick analysis of your soil. For a more thorough soil analysis, contact your local cooperative extension office. Most offer soil testing for a minimal fee.
Follow the instructions for gathering soil sample. Perform your own test, or send the sample to the cooperative extension. Wait for the soil analysis report before amending your soil.
Amend your soil following the recommendations included in the soil test kit, or in the soil summary from the cooperative extension. This typically involves adding organic matter like compost or well-rotted manure to improve texture, increase aeration and promote drainage. It may also include adding lime to increase the pH of your soil or peat moss to reduce the pH. Additional chemical or organic fertilizers may be recommended.
Plant heirloom seeds in the prepared garden soil following the recommended seed depth and spacing. Space rows to the recommended distance for the specific plants you are growing. Look on the seed pack for this information.
Water the seed to moisten the soil. Keep soil moist until seedlings emerge. Germination time varies among species. Some plants, like beans or cucumbers, sprout quickly and may emerge within a few days, while others may require 10 to 14 days--or more--to sprout.
Follow the recommended plant care for your specific flower or vegetable. Flowers and vegetables typically require 1 inch of water per week. If rain is insufficient, supplemental watering is required. Water deeply to saturate the soil to the root level once a week.