Now that our vegetable garden is getting closer to the plant date we've started purchasing seeds. Sharon insists that we look for heirloom varieties. When I asked "why" I got a look suggesting I butt out.
Hey - I'm all about the latest gardening trends but I like to think that I know the difference between sizzle and steak - and if I buy-in to one of these deals I do so "knowingly" and with a clear understanding that it's really more about the hype than the performance.
So what's an heirloom anyway? Generally speaking, they are varieties that have been around for 50 - 100 years - often described as "being handed down from generation to generation." Also - they are open pollinated and again, often described as "coming back true to type." For the most part this is a G-rated blog but let me explain - that in the plant world (just like in the people world) if you have sex with strangers the outcome isn't always predictable. So to suggest that open pollinated heirloom varieties come back true to type is a bit of a stretch.
Many gardeners prefer heirlooms because they place hybrid varieties in the same category as genetically modified organisms (GMO's) - which, of course, they are not. Hybrids are merely the result of crossing 2 different varieties to obtain the desirable benefits of the offspring. No genetic manipulation there. What are some of these desirable benefits you ask? Things like resistance to Verticilum wilt, Fusarium wilt and nematodes (VFN) in tomatoes, seedless watermelons, higher yields, uniform sizes, shorter time to harvest, improved flavor and so on. I'm not getting how these are bad things or put our ecological system at risk - but maybe I'm missing something.
So why do people grow heirloom varieties? Lots of different reasons. Many gardeners argue that heirlooms taste better than hybrids. Some folks like the historical aspects of growing these older varieties. Some find heirlooms more consistent with an organic gardening philosophy. There's also something kind of alluring about collecting and passing along your own seed. But I think for the most part, gardeners just want to observe and taste different vegetable varieties. All of which are very valid reasons for joining the heirloom movement.