“Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream.” –Josephine Nuese
As I type this, we are in the midst of a good old-fashioned Wyoming ground blizzard, complete with road closures, snow sand-blasting your face when you step out the door, and drifts higher than my knees.
We knew it was coming when it dumped nearly 12-inches of snow yesterday. That’s the pattern ’round these parts: fluffy, dry snow followed by 50 to 60mph winds the following day. It happens just like clockwork.
The barn and coop are a snowy disaster, and it takes mountaineering skills to climb the drifts in the barnyard. And so, I’m hunkering down inside with a cup of herbal tea, a roast in the crockpot, and a pile of seed packets waiting for it to pass.
That’s right my friends, it’s seed ordering time.
I’ve been using nothing but heirloom seeds for the last 7+ years and have had really good results with them. (Well, minus the years I’ve killed my garden, but that wasn’t the fault of the seeds.)
Inevitably, when I mention seeds on social media, I’m peppered with a dozen questions or so about my favorite seeds and where I buy them. Thus, I figured it was high-time to write it all out in an official blog post.
What are Heirloom Seeds
Like most things, there’s a considerable amount of debating surrounding the exact definition of an heirloom seed, but most folks can agree on the following characteristics:
Heirloom seeds are:
- Open-pollinated. This means the plants have only been exposed to natural pollination methods like insects, birds, or wind, and have not been purposely crossed with other varieties. This also means when you plant a seed saved from an heirloom plant, it will produce true to its type. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but NOT all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. (Some plants are self-pollinated, but they can fall into this same category.)
- Passed down from generation to generation. Most folks agree that in order to be considered an heirloom, a plant must have been around for at least 50 years, although many varieties have been around for much longer. This means they may have been lovingly cultivated and preserved by someone’s great-great-grandma, or grown as a market-variety hundreds of years ago.
- Not hybrids. Hybrids are plants that have been artificially crossed for better production, color, portability, etc. For example, let’s say you have a variety of tomato that grows big, beautiful fruit, but doesn’t produce a large yield. But you also have another variety of tomato that has fantastic yields, but smaller fruit. By crossing these two plants, you feasibly could create a hybrid that would give you the best of both worlds. However, it would be pointless to save seeds from your new hybrid plant, as any seeds you held back would not produce true to the type of either parent. And so if you are growing hybrids, you’ll have to repurchase seed each year.
- Not genetically modified. I see a lot of folks confusing hybrids with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and they are NOT the same thing. A GMO is something that has been altered with molecular genetic techniques. You can’t do this at home and it’s unlikely you’ll run across many GMO seeds in your home-gardening seed catalogs. It costs a lot of money to genetically modify something, so most companies focus on the process for large-scale industrial crops. GMOs are highly controversial, and I prefer to steer clear of them whenever I can.
Why I Prefer Heirloom Seeds
Oh man… Where do I even start?
- The taste! Heirloom veggies haven’t been subjected to selective breeding that favors uniformity and their ability to be shipped cross-country over taste. Heirloom tomatoes taste like, well, tomatoes; not the bland mush you’re used to getting at the store. Last summer I grew an heirloom spinach crop in our raised beds. Normally I’m just “meh” when it comes to spinach; it’s fine, but nothing I really crave. However, I couldn’t get enough of my heirloom spinach crop! It had a flavor like I’ve never experienced from store-bought spinach, and I found myself going out to the garden several times per day to grab handfuls. The taste difference alone is worth sourcing and growing heirloom seeds.
- Adaptability. If you plan on saving the seeds from your heirloom plants, some varieties will adapt to their location and grow a little bit better each year. Pretty cool, eh?
- Seed Saving. As I mentioned above, saving hybrid seeds doesn’t work since the seeds won’t produce true to type. However, you don’t have to worry about that with heirlooms. If you are careful with your seed saving, you could stop buying seeds indefinitely! (Until you start looking at catalogs and you get the itch to try something new… But I digress.)
- Nutrition. There are some interesting studies that have shown a decrease in the nutrient-density of our food supply over the decades. High yields have taken priority with nutrient-content being pushed to the back-burner. While not all heirlooms are automatically higher in nutrients, there’s a very good chance that your heritage veggies will contain more vitamins and minerals than run-of-the-mill, mass-scale-variety grocery store produce.
- Preserving rare varieties. When you purchase heirloom seeds, you’re supporting all the folks over the decades who have taken so much time and care in saving these seeds, and you’re encouraging genetic diversity for future generations.
- The stories. One of the very best parts of heirloom seeds are their stories. There are ancient melons from Iraq, hardy corn developed in the mountains of Montana, globe-like carrots from France, and fluted Italian tomatoes from the early 19th century. It’s really, really hard for me to opt for ho-hum seeds when I have tantalizing options like these available.
Tips for Growing Heirlooms
Heirloom vegetables really aren’t that different to grow than regular seeds. However, here are a few tips to ensure your success.
Tip #1: Go online or order through a catalog. Unless you have spectacular garden stores in your area, you’ll find a much better (and more exciting) variety online or in catalogs. The scant heirloom offerings at my small, local garden stores are disappointing at best.
Tip #2: NOW (aka January or February) is the time to be stocking up on seeds– the best varieties sell out fast and it’s likely they won’t be available if you wait until April or May.
Tip #3: Read the description to find the growing time and any special notes about climate or location. This is the first thing I look for when I’m seed shopping, and it can really make a difference in our short Wyoming growing season.
Tip #4: Experiment with new colors and types of vegetables– get out of the rut of only red tomatoes and only green beans and go crazy!
Where to Buy Heirloom Seeds
I won’t make you wait any longer! Here are five heirloom seed companies that come highly recommended from homesteaders all over. These all sell non-GMO, open-pollinated varieties, although not all of their seeds are Certified Organic. Government organic certification isn’t all that important to me, providing the companies are committed to sustainable growing/sourcing practices.
- True Leaf Market
I started ordering most of my seeds from True Leaf Market in recent years and I absolutely LOVE them. They have high germination rates and a great selection of seeds (as well as fermenting gear, sprout kits, and other awesome stuff). I have done a podcast interview with the owner and I was even more impressed with their company after that interview. Click here to shop True Leaf Market.
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
This is where I’ve ordered almost all of my seeds in the past and I couldn’t be happier. They have a huge variety, a gorgeous catalog, and they include a free pack of seeds with every order. Click here to shop Baker Creek.
- Seed Savers Exchange
A non-profit community of folks who are dedicated to preserving seeds for the generations to come. Lots of diversity to choose from! Click here to shop Seed Savers Exchange.
- Territorial Seeds.
They carry non-heirloom seeds as well, but have a considerable heirloom section of their website. Click here to shop Territorial Seeds.
- Johnny’s Seeds.
Johnny’s carries many varieties, including a considerable heirloom/open-pollinated section. They also have a selection of certified organic seed if that is a priority for you. Click here to shop Johnny’s Seeds
- Annie’s Heirloom Seeds
A smaller company specializing in heirlooms and certified organic seeds sourced around the world. Click here to shop Annie’s Heirloom Seeds
From Holly: “This year I am excited to support High Mowing Organic Seeds with my seed purchase. As implied in their name, they’re raising the bar in having all their seeds be organic! Last year I had good success with cover crop from them. They have an excellent catalogue of veggies to choose from. Check them out! “https://www.highmowingseeds.com”
From Lorna: “Seed Treasures is a great place to order. Jackie Clay-Atkinson and Will Atkinson have just recently begun to sell their seeds, so it’s a very small operation right now. All seeds are open-pollinated and heirloom and have been tried, tested and tasted. You can read detailed descriptions about each seed selection written by two of the most dedicated homesteaders in the business, Jackie & Will. Reasonably priced, too! http://seedtreasures.com/”
From Danielle: “I love Mary’s heirloom seeds and seeds for generations. They’re both great, small Mom and pop type shops that are dedicated to preserving our agricultural heritage and heirloom seeds. Their customer service is amazing. The varieties may not be as plentiful as a place like baker’s, but they do have quite a variety considering their size! https://www.marysheirloomseeds.com and https://seedsforgenerations.com
From Rose: “I discovered True Leaf Market a few years ago and have been extremely impressed. Their seed germination rate is amazing, and their variety is phenomenal. I now go to them for my sprouting seeds and cover crops too.” https://trueleafmarket.com
What’s your favorite place to buy heirloom seeds?
Leave a comment with a link and 1 or 2 sentences why you like them and I’ll add it to this post!