We’ve all been there. Well, maybe it’s just me. The seed catalog is on the table, visions of fresh vegetables and low grocery bills are dancing in my head, the order form is all filled out, and the total is how much? Are you kidding me?
This year, I decided to change the way I garden so I will never break the bank again. What’s my secret? Heirloom plants, that’s what.
Most of the vegetable seeds sold by major seed companies are hybrids. Hybrid plants are created by combining the genetics of two different strains of tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., resulting in offspring that are slightly more productive than other varieties. They may also have a different color or taste a bit different. These hybrids usually have a cutesy name like Kandy Korn, Bell Boy, or Early Girl. So what’s the big deal, right? Why wouldn’t I want sweeter corn, bigger peppers, or earlier tomatoes?
Well, price is certainly one factor. It’s expensive and labor intensive for companies to produce hybrid seeds. They pass that cost on to the consumer. The real catch, though, comes when you try to plant the seed produced by a hybrid plant in your garden. Instead of the next generation of Bell Boy pepper, you end up with something that looks like one of the parent pepper strains, which is usually not a particularly desirable individual in its own right! You might also get something completely out of left field, or the seed may not grow at all. You just never know what you’ll end up with. Fortunately, it’s still possible to get heirloom (non-hybrid) seed varieties.
What Is An Heirloom Plant?
Heirloom varieties originated at least 50 years ago (100 years, by some definitions). They are bred and maintained through a process called open pollination, in which the plants are allowed to pollinate naturally. Heirloom plants breed true to type within a given population.
So, in other words, a seed from an heirloom squash, planted in my garden, will produce a squash plant very similar to the parent plant.
Let’s take a look at the 2012 catalog from Jung Seeds and Plants, a major gardening supplier and plant nursery. If I want to plant some sweet corn this year, I can choose from more than two dozen hybrid varieties, or one heirloom variety: “Early Golden Bantam Yellow.” The Golden Bantam heirloom has a one-time cost of $5.95 for half a pound of seed. After that, I can save seeds from my own crop to plant in subsequent years. Compare this to the price for half a pound of the hybrid varieties. The cheapest, called “NK199 Yellow,” costs $7.45. The most expensive, called “Xtra-Tender 277A Bicolor,” costs a whopping $19.95 every year!
What about tomatoes? The variation in initial purchase price between hybrid and heirloom is smaller. It is often only a few cents different for a packet of 30 seeds. Some of the newer hybrids may cost several dollars more and may also have fewer seeds per packet. Again, the heirloom tomatoes are a one-time purchase, whereas I’d be buying those hybrids every year.
It’s also important to keep in mind that by planting heirloom varieties, I’m not only keeping money in my pocket, I’m helping to preserve a slice of history. Heirloom plants adapt to the area where they are grown over time and offer a valuable source of genetic diversity for future generations of gardeners and farmers.
Where to Purchase
If you would like to dip your toe into the sea of heirloom garden plants available, there are several possible sources. Major seed catalogs usually offer a limited choice of heirlooms, while specialized sites like Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds have a much wider selection. You may also find heirloom seeds from less traditional sources like farmers markets, gardening forums, or even a helpful neighbor with a green thumb.
Regardless of where you find your original heirlooms, there’s a special sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency that comes from saving and planting your own garden seeds. Saving money? Well… that’s just the icing on the cake.
This has been a guest post by Rachel from Hallsville, MO
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