Heirloom Vegetable Gardening with Heirloom Garden Seed

What is heirloom vegetable gardening? It is choosing to use heirloom garden seeds to grow in your garden.

Heirloom garden seeds are open pollinated. That means that they will produce offspring that carry on the genes of the parent plant. If you save those seeds and plant them next year, you will get the same characteristics that the original plant had.

Heirloom Seeds

How does a plant become an heirloom seed? It is a term used to describe an open pollinated seed that has been in use for 50 years or more. These are the seeds handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter or son through many generations. If it grew well in their climate and produced heavily, tasted good, etc. then it was preserved.

Gardeners used seed from their plants for next year's garden for centuries. That and trading with others is how they got their seeds. If a friend tried a new variety they had gotten, and really liked it, they might pass some of the seeds along. The new owner would try their luck with the new variety. If they liked it, they would keep some for the next year.

My grandmother used to share seeds with friends and get some new varieties from them as well. If she found one she really liked, she would save seed for future years, and pass it down to the next generation. Hybrids came along in the last 80 years or so as scientists began experimenting with improving yields and increasing disease resistance.

Now there is a choice of which you prefer to buy. Hybrids can outperform some heirloom varieties, and especially when it comes to disease resistance this can be a great thing.

They don't always have as rich a flavor as the old varieties do though. The seeds from hybrid plants are unpredictable. They may grow, but may produce something very different from the original plant.

Where to Get Heirloom Seeds

Many heirloom varieties are still sold in most major seed catologues today. They are available in garden centers too. They may be an heirloom, or just open pollinated, but they will produce true to the parent.

Names like Cherry Belle radish, Waltham Butternut Squash,Kentucky Wonder Bean, and others have stayed favorites among gardeners for many years.

For more exotic varieties, some dating back to Native American use, or coming from other parts of the world, you might have to look in a shop that specializes in heirloom seeds.

Organic seeds are usually open-pollinated as well. French, Italian, German and other strains of vegetables can offer delicious variations. Botanical Interests is one such shop that offers heirloom and open pollinated organic seeds.

bell pepper saving seeds

Saving Seeds

If you want to save seeds, you have to keep to one cultivar or variety of most plants. Beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and peas however, are self pollinating and you can have several varieties without them cross pollinating.

They can be saved from many plants, as long as you allow the fruit or seed of that vegetable to fully ripen first.

Different types of vegetables may have some special needs when saving the seeds, but in general, it's a matter of harvesting a ripe squash, pepper, or melons and allowing the seeds to dry for 3-14 days before putting them into a paper bag.

Label your bags (I use paper envelopes) with the variety, year, and whatever else you might think you need to know. Plastic sandwich bags can work, but if the seed isn't dry enough might cause mold.

For tomatoes, it is better to squeeze the tomato and get some pulp and seeds into a glass. Add a little water, and allow them to sit on the counter a few days. The good seeds will sink; the bad seed will float and can be poured off.

This process is called fermenting, and should only be done with open-pollinated tomato plants, not with hybrid varieties. This method works well for cucumbers too.

When to Harvest Seeds

How do you know when a fruit is fully ripe? Usually the color will tell you. A tomato will be full red, yellow or whatever color it is meant to be. Peppers usually turn red.

Bean pods will turn brown and dry out. They should be brittle. Harvest the pods and let them air dry a few days before removing the seeds. Okra has a very similar pod, handle it the same way.

Squash will go from green to yellow or at least a large stripe of yellow, as will cucumbers, watermelons, and honeydew melons. Also the outer skin, or rind, will become dry and tougher. Don't let them get too tough, or the seeds might become over ripe and less viable.

I usually lay the seed on a clean paper towel. It is fully exposed to the air in the house. I may turn large ones after a couple of days to make sure both sides are dry. Then I prepare my storage bag and label it. The air in Arizona is very dry, so they dry quickly here. In a humid environment you might need to let them dry for a full week or longer. Be sure to remove any plant parts, rinsing the seeds to get them clean, before drying.

Parsley, carrots, onions, cauliflower, endive, celery, parsnips, beets and cabbage will require staying alive over the winter to produce seed. They are 2nd year or biennial producers.

Select two or three plants to keep over the winter, and the following year, they will flower and produce seed.

Small Seeds

For some seeds that are not inside of a fruit or pod, you need to watch as the seed ripens. It usually will go from green to black or dark brown. When you tap on the seed stalk, of lettuce for example, some should be loose and fall out into your hand or a bowl you brought along to catch the seed.

Lettuce, radishes, and other non-fruiting plants usually have small seeds like those just described. They MUST be fully ripe before saving or they will not sprout.

If the weather is windy, and the seeds might fall out before you harvest them, you can tie a piece of pantyhose over the stem to catch the seeds.

Once the stalk is nearly dry, break it off and carry it inside to get the seeds out of the pantyhose. You can break the stalk off and allow it to dry in the house if seeds have turned to the ripe color.

Some seeds, like onions, parsnip, and a few others will only sprout the following year. Others will still sprout 5 years later or longer.

I've had 8 year old seeds come up fine. They were stored in fabric pouches, and could get air. I think that extends their viability. My grandmother used to take a small piece of cotton fabric that breathed, and pull the edges up around the seeds. Then she would tie this makeshift pouch with a piece of fabric or string.

Store seed in a cool dry place, and it will be waiting for you next spring when it's time to plant your garden.

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