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Heirlooms are vintage varieties preserved by passing down seed through generations. Generally, at least 50 to 100 years old, heirlooms are always open pollinated and usually breed true to type. Their benefit is that they are sustainable! You can save seeds from year to year indefinitely! They were selected for flavor and quality as well as ease of growth. One thing of note is that varieties were selected for a particular location and each year seed saved from the best ones, which in allowed for varieties to develop that grew better in particular locations such as Central Kentucky.
Prior to the development of commercial farming methodologies, heirlooms held a prominent place on the family farm. Today, many of these old-time favorites are finding a niche at local farmers’ markets and roadside stands (as well as most home gardens).
Many hybrid varieties are a cross between two other varieties to establish characteristics for mass marketing. Growers might cross tomato varieties for disease resistance, uniformity and solid texture to improve shipping stability. Beans and cucumbers might grow low to the ground on bush type plants, which allows for mechanized harvesting. The problem for homeowners and the positive for seed companies is that you can’t save hybrid seed and get the same variety back the following year like you can with heirlooms. Thus, you have to go back to the seed companies and purchase seeds yearly!
Many heirlooms require a different set of growing practices, however not all. Tomatoes are often indeterminate and require staking (which most of us prefer). Beans and cucumbers are mostly vine varieties that need trellising. The fruits may be more susceptible to disease, however I have grown a tremendous amount of heirloom tomatoes and have found many of them do have disease resistance it’s just that seed companies don’t do the research to find out exactly what resistance they have because there isn’t as much money to be made in heirlooms as opposed to hybrids. However, with tomatoes many of the heirlooms aren’t resistant to fusarium and verticillium wilt, which is soil born, if you have those diseases in your soil you will definitely want to grow a hybrid with proven resistance.
Heirloom varieties were selected for generations for productivity and, above all taste, which means they don’t hold up to shipping and they don’t last long after harvest. This makes them poorly suited for commercial growers who sell to large wholesale markets. Smaller wholesale markets for heirloom growers include local restaurants, food co-ops and health food stores. Selling seed, transplants, and value-added products such as salsa or soup mix represent other income producing opportunities.
The difference between hybrids and heirlooms arguably may be one of quality versus quantity. It is noteworthy that heirlooms almost always are ripened on the vine where hybrids are often picked in the green stage. This may account for taste and texture differences in the end.
Whether you want to grow heirlooms to sell or simply for the enjoyment of your own table, many sources exist for good heirloom seeds. Because they are open pollinated, heirloom lines are much easier than hybrids to maintain. Look for reputable catalog companies that offer product descriptions and history. The Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in Berea offers a wide variety of old-fashioned bean seeds. Kentucky heirloom tomato varieties include KY Beefsteak and Depp’s Pink Firefly. Some communities offer seed exchanges through their local farmer’s markets. You can also purchase heirlooms from reputable dealers such as Baker Creek and Seed Saver’s Exchange. These are the two I most often order from for programs.
The Wheelbarrow Series got off to a great start last week with a total of 36 participants! It looks like having each class twice once on Tuesday mornings and again on Thursday evenings is going to work well. If you haven’t signed up for any classes yet you still have time, the next class is on March 11 and March 13 on “Growing Root Vegetables in Kentucky.” One of the many topics we will cover is why so many people have trouble growing beets, from what I am hearing it’s a problem that needs addressing! Happy gardening!