Gardening With Heirlooms

The other day, I was chatting with a fellow gardener and was asked why I would waste my time with heirlooms when there are so many great hybrids to chose from. Hmmmm....

Before heirlooms, I had no idea there were so many different varieties of vegetables (for instance). I'll stick with veggies, since that is what I am into most. My start came from watching "Gardening Naturally" with Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch. At that time that I started watching them, my garden was small and we got a few things out of it, but mostly weeds. Not only did I learn how to improve the soil and different planting methods, but I heard about an amazing item - heirloom tomatoes. That's how it started - one pack of Brandywines.

Since then, I became passionate about heirlooms - the more I read about them, the more I wanted to grow them. Not only are they full of history, but they are the key to us not ending up with the same problem as the Potato Blight in Ireland. As many of us know, the potato blight wiped out the crops of potatoes, but never did they tell in school why. Not until I started learning about heirlooms did it all make sense. If you plant only one or two kinds of potatoes, you could lose them all to a certain type of disease. If I recall, they had only two types of potatoes, and they were both susceptible to the blight. Unfortunately, with that mistake, many people starved to death.

Sadly - it appears we didn't learn a darned thing from that, but have decided to keep using only a few different types of certain plant to continue our foodcrops. In the '70's, the US had a disaster with the corn crop, losing all of the southern US's crop a good 15% of the rest of it across the States. Why? Because we were pretty much using only three different commercially grown corns - and all those corns were very close in their genetic make-ups. And still, we haven't learned. Genetic diversity is so important!!!!

If you pick up a seed catalog, you may find that there are only a few different varieties of each vegetable being offered. If you grew a hybrid that you really liked, they may have been or are being phased out to make room for what is considered a new and improved variety. There have been so many of the vegetables lost and sadly will never be able to be replaced. I can't recall the number off the top of my head of what has been lost, but it is a huge amount. And knowing the number lost - it becomes astounding when you look at the Seed Saver's catalog and see that they offer over 11,500 varieties of vegetables, fruits and grains. Out of those, 5,500 are tomatoes, and 5,200 are beans!!!

A woman I know has the desire to start a seed bank. We need more like her to help preserve what is left. I know that I am trying to collect a nice selection. I keep enough to replant in case I have a crop failure, and the rest is traded off for new varieties. If every gardener in the world saved seed from just one of their favorite varieties, we would never have to worry about losing our genetic diversity and our heritage.

I won't cover the topics of GMO's or Monsanto - because I could go on forever, and bore you to tears. I'm not pleased at where our food crops are going, and that's why I'm so passionate about heirlooms. Every time we plant, nurture and collect the seeds from our heirlooms we are being good stewards.

Another thing that appealed to me was how the heirlooms will adapt to your area. Each year that you grow that variety, save the seed and then replant it, it will become more resistant to diseases and more tolerable to the conditions of your garden. Also, but saving your own seed, you can cut back on costs of buying new seed every year.

And if that isn't enough... all those different varieties are just plain downright fun to grow!!

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All photos and information are copyright by Curt & Theresa Dunlap 2003.

A HUGE thank you to Helena Normak for this lovely background set! This set was supplied by Graphic Garden and copyright is held by Helena Normak. Please respect this copyright and visit Graphic Garden to obtain your own sets.