People frequently take it as a sign of aging when someone comments that things don't taste the way they used to. As we are increasingly concerned about the carbon and chemical footprints of food crops, however, gardeners take the descriptions of older times more seriously. Returning to home gardens, composting and eating local produce all suggest that things did taste better some time ago. Growing heirloom seeds and plants helps us understand what we have been missing.
Heirloom Plants and Seeds
Heirloom seeds and plants are the varieties grown before hybridizing made certain fruits, vegetables and flowers readily available all over the country. Heirlooms are open pollinated, which means they are pollinated by natural wind, insects and weather, not by any human or mechanical means. They are also true-to-type growers. Seeds saved from an heirloom Brandywine tomato plant will yield more Brandywine tomato plants next year. In some families and communities, saved seeds are handed down from one generation to the next.
Hybridization and Plant Health
The goals of W. Atlee Burpee and other early hybridizers of plants were to improve the quality of plants and their produce. One area of quality was disease. A good-yielding bean could be crossed with one that showed high disease resistance. As a farmer, you might find that this hybrid increased your chances of a good crop over planting the local old-time favorite, which tasted great when you could fight off the mildew. Heirlooms tend to keep their bad qualities as well as their good ones.
Hybridization and Homogeneity
In addition to creating an interest in each year's bigger and better, hybridizing increased national interest in out-of-season varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers. In addition to growing well, hybridizing now had to meet demands for growers that traveled well; many people regarded talk of a square tomato (to fit in packing boxes) as the nadir of plant hybridizing. More delicate local varieties, however, lost popularity, and agriculture as a whole lost variety. Some countries and areas, switching to cash crops to generate income, found themselves spending profits on fertilizers and pesticides and losing the ability to remain self-supporting.
Changing Support for Heirloom Seeds and Plants
Recognition that diversity has been lost through hybridization, agribusiness development, and human environmental impact is now shared by disparate groups. Environmentalists, agencies supporting development in third-world countries, and groups addressing hunger issues can all identify reasons for preventing the further loss of local plants and produce. From communities supporting local farmers' markets to the consortium contributing to the Doomsday Safe, people and organizations at many levels are seeking to integrate the best of the past with the best of the present.
Sources for Heirloom Seeds and Plants
Heirlooms can be obtained from a growing number of nurseries, farmers and seed-saving organizations. Proponents of maintaining biodiversity in home gardens can usually provide good information on the growing conditions needed for specific heirlooms to do well. Local native plant organizations and County Extension services can also be excellent sources for helping you locate and restore local heirlooms.