What Is Heirloom Gardening (and Why You Should Try It)
If you're thinking about heirloom gardening, it's tempting to believe that seeds are just seeds. Does it really matter what you grow?
It doesn't matter if you're just looking to experiment and dabble in a little of everything without caring much about the yield. But if you want to grow a survival garden or a self-sufficient food source that produces delicious, nutrient-packed varieties, heirloom gardening is well worth your time and effort.
Here's what to know about heirloom gardening, why you should incorporate it into your seed survival strategy, and what to expect along the way.
What Makes a Seed and Heirloom?
Although you can successfully grow a survival garden without heirloom seeds, there are some factors to consider. Here's a breakdown of the different types of seeds you can use in your garden:
GMOs (Genetically Modified)
GMOs are altered in labs to produce specific traits. They tend to be used by large-scale commercial farms and aren't common with home gardens. But they do offer upsides, like resistance to certain diseases and pests.
Humans create hybrid seeds by cross-pollinating them to combine desirable traits. But they don't produce reliable and "true" vegetables year to year, so you end up needing new seeds to plant every season. Hybrids are not a great choice for survival gardening, as there are no seeds to save and continue on your journey towards self-sufficiency.
Heirloom seeds are not altered or cross-pollinated and are instead open-pollinated. In other words, they're pollinated by birds or other natural elements instead of by humans.
Heirloom gardening is also true-to-type, which means two plants from the same species are pollinated and create new seeds that you can replant. Those seeds also contain the same traits as their original parent plants.
One of the beauties of heirloom gardening is how long you can pass down your seeds. You can keep growing plants, fruits, and vegetables from the same family of seeds over and over again. It's incredible to think about growing a plant and passing on its seeds for generations. Your grandchildren could plant squash from your original seeds all those years ago.
What Are the Pros of Heirloom Gardening?
Beyond the efficiency of passing down seeds year after year, there are other pros to consider with heirloom gardening.
You Get a Better Variety
If you go to the grocery store, you'll likely see a handful of tomato varieties for sale. Meanwhile, there are thousands of heirloom tomato varieties to choose from. You can plant dozens every year and never run out of new options. It's not just tomatoes. You'll find hundreds of other heirloom garden vegetables, herbs, and flowers in different flavors, sizes, and colors.
Heirloom Seeds Produce Better Taste
When seeds aren’t tampered and modified, you’ll notice they come with their own unique flavors. You may discover that the fruits and veggies you're usually lukewarm about are delicious with deeper flavors when produced from heirloom gardening.
Heirloom Varieties Are Inexpensive
Depending on the seeds you choose, heirlooms are usually inexpensive. But even if a specific variety seems a little steep, you can always keep growing them year after year and get an incredible return on your investment.
Heirloom Gardening Packs in the Nutrition
Heirloom seeds are packed with nutrition, especially considering how much modification grocery store varieties go through. Companies need to quickly mass produce their crops and extend their shelf life as long as possible for the store. The results are often (but not always) stripped-down nutrition and flavor.
There's also something to be said about rows and rows of produce that look exactly alike at your market. Human or chemical intervention creates that kind of blanket uniformity. Heirloom gardening, and really any kind of home survival gardening, isn't uniform. You get a variety of quirky and interesting yields, especially when you're just starting.
What Are Some of the Downsides to Heirloom Gardening?
Despite all the upsides, there are a few downsides to heirloom gardening. Here's what to know before you start planting.
Heirloom Plants Grow Less Fruit and Vegetables
It makes sense that if you're not going to tamper with seeds for max production value, they will grow less fruit. As a result, you may need to plant a little more than you expect to ensure you get the yield you want.
They Take Up More Space in Your Heirloom Garden
On the upside, heirloom fruits and vegetables tend to be larger, including their plants. So you may still get enough of the food quantity you're looking for, especially if you plan to can or pickle your produce. However, the downside is that you need more heirloom gardening space to grow them. Heirloom plants are known to flourish and can take over your other plants.
Heirloom Gardening is Sometimes Unpredictable
If you don't use modified seeds and interventions like commercial fertilizers, you'll see more unpredictability in your garden. Survival gardeners are usually okay with this, as they're more likely to look at the long-term potential and health benefits.
When you're accustomed to a few quick crops, you'll likely be disappointed when your heirloom garden takes weeks or even months longer than your usual garden. Compost and other natural fertilizers can combat some of the issues with pests and sluggish growth. Beyond using high-quality natural fertilizers, you should also set realistic growing periods.
How to Get Your Foundation Right with Heirloom Gardening
The foundation of any survival garden starts with healthy soil. Skip the chemical fertilizers, lean on compost or natural chicken manure, and fortify your soil with organic matter. Rotating your crops also helps keep nutrients flowing into your soil and grows healthier yields.
Keep in mind that heirloom plants are often larger, making it essential not to overplant one area of your garden. Otherwise, they may end up overshadowing your other produce. But if you're planting more than one variety of species at a time, you also risk cross-pollination when they're so close together. If you plan to grow several varieties at once, space them out generously.
How to Pick the Right Heirloom Seeds
Beyond your soil, you also need the right seeds. If you're new to heirloom gardening, start with more manageable fruits and veggies, like tomatoes, lettuce, and carrots. You can also add in some of your favorites, like watermelon and cantaloupe.
It may take a few tries to determine how to grow a successful survival or heirloom garden, but it's well worth the effort. Once you get the hang of it, you have your own food supply growing in your backyard that yields generational seeds.
Make sure you only buy from a reputable seed retailer, or you may end up with seeds that are anything but an heirloom. You may not mind the difference in flavor, but you'll suffer the consequences when your hybrid or modified seeds don't produce new yields the following season.
How to Save Your Heirloom Seeds
Saving heirloom seeds involves more than just grabbing them off the plant or produce and dumping them into a container. Keeping your seeds safe requires survival-grade packets with a long shelf life.
Our silver and clear mylar seed storage bags are the same grade packets we used for our Survival Seed Vaults. They come with a shelf life of 25 years, and you can heat-seal them for added protection.
Once your seeds are collected and bagged, you should store them in a cool, dry place that avoids temperature and humidity fluctuations. A dry cellar is one place to start. But you can also store heirloom seeds in a refrigerator or freezer for several years.