Hybrid seeds are created by selecting two strains and cross-pollinating them to create a more vigorous plant, often selecting for higher yield and shelf stability. Heirlooms are old-time varieties saved year after year and are prized for their superb flavor, superior nutrient density, and the ability to save your own.
What are some advantages to growing heirloom strains?
The number one reason to grow heirlooms is the exceptional flavor. Many modern breeding programs have sacrificed taste and nutrition to gain shelf stability. Modern hybrids are often bred to be picked green and gas-ripened because that is what is needed for commercial growing and shipping. Heirlooms, on the other hand, have been saved for decades and even centuries because they are the best performers for home and market gardens. The ability to ship and distribute them was never a concern. This allowed flavor and nutrition to take a front seat. What farmer could survive in a world of direct-to-market produce if their tomatoes didn’t taste as good as their neighbors?
On top of the need for a more shelf-stable product, commercial breeders have been steadily selecting hybrids that yield more and more. Although for home gardeners, a small difference in yield is not a big deal. Even though hybrids often do outyield heirlooms, research has shown that newer, conventionally bred vegetables are significantly less nutrient-dense than heirloom counterparts. According to a study done by the Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas in 2009, there is an inverse relationship between yield and mineral density with some minerals declining by as much as 40%. This relationship is known as the genetic dilution effect and has been recognized as a reality since the 1940s.
Saving Seeds and Local Adaptations
Another advantage of heirlooms over conventional hybrids is the ability to save your seeds and replant them year after year. Because heirloom plants are open-pollinated, seeds saved from heirlooms will produce plants that are true to type. This allows home gardeners to continuously select seeds from plants that performed better than others and enjoy them year after year. This creates locally adapted varieties that can better combat local pests and diseases. Small, diverse gardens and heirlooms that have been selected for specific localities will only become more reliable year after year. Not only do you get a better, locally adapted strain when you save your own seeds, but you also save money because you don’t have to purchase new seeds every year.
The advantages of heirloom varieties are plentiful. Flavor, nutritional content, and unlimited seeds are just a few of them. We highly encourage everyone, with any space to grow their own and to do so with the most environmentally friendly methods. This means organically grown heirloom varieties picked right out of the garden and served to the community in which they were grown.
Choosing Your Heirloom Varietal
Do Your Research
To choose a strong variety for your specific zone, the best practice is to first do research into which varieties flourish there. Part of this is determining where you will be planting your garden. Is it south-facing? If so, you will have the longest daylight hours throughout the growing season and will want to choose varieties that grow better under these specific conditions. There may be several varieties well suited for your specific situation. Choosing to grow several is advantageous because some will perform better than others and gives you better chances of finding one especially well adapted to your growing environment. Beginning with too many can be a hindrance because some may have such drastically different growth characteristics that growing them may be more difficult and costly than preferred. A good number to start with is five. This allows you to have a good variety to choose from while maintaining the least amount of variables. Some varieties require a longer growth period before the onset of bloom, if your growth zone has longer winters it can be advantageous to start in a greenhouse or indoor propagation area before the last frost. Some varieties are known to be cold-hardy and may be a better option for those without a greenhouse or indoor area to start.
Define A Win!
Once you’ve chosen the best varieties on paper, it’s time to grow them out. The number of tomatoes you get, the size of them, whether they are early or late, and how they taste, are dependent on a combination of factors, mainly, the variety and growing practices. If you’ve got your growing methods dialed in then it’s time to choose the best. You can define “best” as whatever characteristics you’re after: most tomatoes, shortest growing season, biggest or healthiest plant, biggest, tastiest, or most colorful tomatoes. Whatever you want! Just choose the best examples of what you want to save.
Heirloom Seed Saving
On to the harvest! You’ll want to choose tomatoes in their prime, not over-ripe or under-ripe, no diseased or misshapen tomatoes, etc. This ensures you harvest seeds at the most fertile period. While it is not necessary to ferment the seeds, it does provide some advantages such as making them easier to separate from the gel, helping sort out poor-quality seeds, reducing some seed-borne illnesses, and eliminating a germination inhibitor. If you’re planning on trading seeds with others, it is considered good etiquette to ferment them, and here’s how you do it:
How to Ferment for Seed Preservation
Cut the tomato in half and scoop our squeeze the gel and seeds into a small, labeled container. Set the rest of the tomato aside for consumption. Add ¼ to ½ cup of water. Set the container aside, out of the sun for a period of three to five days. A moldy film will likely appear on top. This is okay. At this point, it is time to separate the seeds. First, carefully remove the film, add some more water and stir. Healthy seeds will sink, so you are not able to carefully pour off the water and floating bits of pulp. Repeat this process until all of the pulp is gone and you are left with clean seeds. Drain them as well as you can and spread them in a single later on a screen or paper plate to dry, paper towels are okay but the seeds tend to stick to them. The seeds need the water to be wicked away from them so the screen or paper plate are preferred methods. If you’re saving multiple varieties be sure to label the plates. Once the seeds are thoroughly dry, place them in an airtight container for storage. Tomato seeds can remain viable for years, even stored at room temperature. For extra protection, we recommend storing them in the refrigerator or freezer, but you’ll want to let them come to room temperature before opening the jar so as not to introduce moisture via condensation. A small packet of silica gel will also help absorb excess moisture.
The More You Know the Better You Grow!
Voila! You have successfully grown and saved your best heirloom varieties. Next season choose a couple more new varieties and compare them to the ones you’ve saved, you may be able to find an even better choice. Happy growing!