Heirloom Fruit and Vegetables: The Backyard Gardener’s Mission

By Colleen Dieter

Whether you are an avid gardener or a newbie, you may have heard fellow gardeners chatting about heirloom varieties of vegetables with zealous passion. Heirloom plants have turned reserved, calm gardener folks into crazed, radical revolutionaries. Ok, maybe that is hyperbole, but I have overheard these conversations several times, and wondered what motivated ordinary backyard gardeners to become emotional when talking about certain heirloom varieties of tomatoes, apples and radishes. So, I decided to research for this article by talking to friends and surfing the web for info about these seemingly intoxicating plants.

There is a lot of controversy out there about what the term “heirloom” means when it comes to vegetables and fruit. Some sources say that heirloom plants must be varieties that were introduced to gardeners before WWII, when larger seed companies started breeding plants so the plants have characteristics that made them more suitable for large-scale commercial food production. For example, after WWII seed companies wanted to breed new types of tomatoes that are harder and less squishy as heirloom tomatoes, making them easier to ship to grocery stores. Other gardeners say heirloom varieties have to be 100 years old or even older.

Other sources say that heirloom varieties of edible plants must be “open pollinated.” The National Gardening Association Dictionary of Horticulture defines open pollinated as “Pollinated by wind or insects, not by human intervention.” Open pollination is important with heirloom plants because the offspring of plants that are open pollinated are similar to their parent plants. The best way to explain the importance of “open pollination” is through an example: Let’s say you plant an open pollinated tomato plant. You get a good crop of tomatoes from it and they taste really yummy. Then you decide that instead of buying those same tomato seeds next season you would rather save some of the seeds from your current crop. The new tomatoes planted from the seeds you saved will have the same traits as the first tomatoes you planted. Plants that are not open pollinated are called hybrids. Hybrids are plants that humans purposely created using breeding techniques. If you saved the seeds from a hybrid plant and planted them the next year, then the new plants will probably be different from their parents. Sometimes the seeds from hybrids are sterile and will not come up at all. For more info, visit this great site that I found that is dedicated entirely to information about heirloom vegetables: http://www.halcyon.com/tmend/define.htm .

What’s my opinion on the controversial definition of heirloom plants? I like to think of heirloom plants in the same way that we talk about family heirlooms: something is rare and irreplaceable that is passed on from one generation to the next. Often, it’s a thing that you can’t buy at a store and it is valued either for some unusual or sentimental characteristic. Heirloom varieties of plants tend to be more than 50 years old and open pollinated, but those rules are very flexible and have many exceptions.

Most backyard gardeners have a stake in growing heirloom edibles for personal reasons. Many gardeners I talked to use the tomato example. If you buy a tomato from a chain grocery store, you typically get something that is kind of pinkish, small, shiny, hard, mealy and mild-tasting. The plants tend to be resistant to diseases and can adapt to bad weather. That type of tomato was bred with the interest of large-scale farmers, chain restaurants, and grocery stores in mind. That tomato looks like what most consumers think of when they visualize a tomato, most people find the taste acceptable and it ships well. The truth is, the interests of backyard gardeners and small farmers are different from the interests of bigger farmers and grocery stores. Backyard gardeners want a colorful, squishy, juicy tomato with lots of sweetness and acidic flavors—something that you can’t regularly buy at the store. Heirloom varieties fit that bill. Heirloom tomatoes come in dozens of shapes, sizes, colors and flavors that are interesting and fun.

But many small farmers and backyard gardeners also have an ecological reason for growing heirloom varieties. When large scale farmers began growing just a few newer hybrid varieties of edibles in the mid-20th century, some of the old types of plants fell by the wayside. Untold numbers of varieties went extinct, and the survival of heirloom varieties available to us now is due to passionate backyard gardeners, small farmers, and small seed companies who saved seeds and quietly kept these old plants in production.

You may ask yourself, “So what if some varieties of edible plants go extinct? The ones we still have are fine.” The truth is that the modern hybrid varieties of edible plants that we have are not entirely fine. One of my horticulture professors at Ohio State told my class about problems that Chiquita was having on their banana plantations in the late 1990s. Modern banana hybrids bred for large-scale production and for long-distance shipping from the tropics are yellow, relatively large, seedless, and harder than other types of bananas. Heirloom banana varieties vary in color. Some are red or maroon. They vary in size and tend to be softer. Left to their own devices, these bananas will produce plants with seeds. When large-scale banana producers finally bred the ‘perfect banana’ for their commercial purposes around the mid-20th century, they stopped breeding new types of plants and began growing only one kind of banana. In order to be sure that they would not accidentally grow bananas with different traits, they started using asexual methods for cloning their banana plants. The result is that every banana plant on a large-scale banana plantation is going to be genetically identical to every other banana plant on that plantation.

This isn’t science fiction; banana plants naturally clone themselves by producing offshoot plants from the base of their trunks, just like tulips, agaves, spider plants, and onions. Cloning is very common in the plant world. Plant producers also use a simple process called tissue culture to clone plants. A tiny piece of plant tissue is placed in a Petri dish in either a lab or greenhouse with some nutritious gel in it, and this tiny piece of plant tissue is fed hormones. From this tiny plant tissue grows a whole new plant. I did some tissue culturing in one of my lower-level college crop science classes, and the tissue culture method is used to reproduce most new seedless grape plants. But in the late 1990s, Chiquita plantations began losing large numbers of banana plants to disease, and because every banana plant was genetically identical there were no plants that had resistance to this disease. The companies began seeking out heirloom varieties of bananas to begin breeding new varieties of bananas to resist this particular disease. Luckily for Chiquita, and all of us who love to eat bananas, there were still some heirloom bananas available for breeding, and those heirloom varieties happened to be resistant to this particular disease. What if all of those heirloom varieties had gone extinct?

For another example and perspective on biodiversity, check out this article by Michael Pollan about apples: http://www.michaelpollan.com/article.php?id=54

Finally, some backyard gardeners and small farmers around the world plant heirloom varieties of plants for political reasons. In the U.S., if a seed company breeds a new variety of plant, they often put a patent on that new plant so they are the only ones who can produce that plant. People who save seeds to reproduce that plant and don’t pay royalties to the seed company who originally produced it can incur fines. The laws surrounding this type of ownership are enforced by federal and state departments of agriculture. Some gardeners are uncomfortable with the idea that someone can own genetic material, arguing that genes are a part of the natural world. Many heirloom gardeners are uncomfortable with the idea that a large seed company or corporation could possibly have exclusive rights to produce certain types of food, especially staples like corn and wheat. This issue becomes even more complicated because of the introduction of genetically modified crops. You can hear about a court battle that went on in Canada over ownership of genetically engineered canola here: https://beta.prx.org/stories/184510

Like the copyright laws surrounding works of art, heirloom varieties are so old that no one can claim to own them. They are part of the ‘public domain,’ leaving gardeners and farmers free to plant them, save their seeds, and reproduce them without penalties.

I have planted lots of heirloom varieties in my garden just for fun, not knowing the other reasons for growing them. My experience with heirlooms has been mixed. I have grown very attached to certain varieties. My friends know of my fondness for ‘French Breakfast’ radishes. I also adore ‘Romano’ pole beans and ‘Armenian’ cucumbers. Other heirlooms I have tried, especially tomatoes, have not done well and can be very quirky. So, if you are interested in heirlooms, then keep an open mind and get ready for some challenges. It helps to keep a garden journal so you can remember which varieties worked for you, and which ones to avoid. I have found my gardening successes are even more rewarding with heirlooms because I can pass the seeds on to friends and I am helping to preserve genetic diversity. Plus, the unusual plants make for great conversation with gardener pals.

Ask your local librarian if there is a seed library in your community. Often the best way to get heirloom seeds is from other gardeners. Seed libraries lend seeds to gardeners and at the end of the growing season gardeners can bring their saved seeds back to contribute to the library. I am one of the founding members of the seed library on the 6th floor of the Austin Public Library Central Branch in downtown Austin, Texas.

Seed swaps are another great way to get ahold of hard to find heirloom varieties that are suitable for your location. Recently I snagged some rare ‘Chushaw’ squash seeds at a swap.

There are lots of good places to buy heirloom seeds and plants. Check out these favorites of mine:

Seed Savers Exchange- Garden Maven Peg got some cool broom corn seeds here.


Tons of varieties and great information at Botanical Interests, a family-owned business.


Renee’s garden is going to have most of what you want.


Cool fruit and nut trees are available here at Trees Of Antiquity.


There are many very cool local (and loco) websites for region-specific heirloom seeds. This one is for Hudson Valley New York, the Hudson Valley Seed Library


Johnny’s Seeds has an entire heirloom section in their online catalog: