In 1972 Dianne Ott Whealy’s grandfather gave her seeds the family had brought to Iowa when they’d emigrated from Bavaria a century earlier. Three years later, Whealy and her husband, Kent, started Seed Savers Exchange to share her Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glories and German Pink tomatoes with other gardeners—and discover the open-pollinated vegetable and flower varieties that were similarly cherished by other families.
Little did she know she was planting the seeds of something far, far, bigger: Hipster Heirloom Hysteria, a condition seen today in grocery aisles and on restaurant menus everywhere. But now that “heirloom” has reached celebrity status, at least among mustachioed Brooklyn rooftop gardeners and inked-up farm-to-table chefs, it seems like a good time to ask the question: What’s the big whoop? Are heirloom varieties really better?
Not necessarily—where taste is concerned, anyway. “I’ve certainly heard the argument that heirlooms taste better,” Shannon Carmody, Seed Saver’s Public Programs Manager, told me. “I’d say that’s not true: You can find the worst-tasting heirloom in the world.”
Of course, taste is subjective, and that’s where one argument for heirloom cultivation starts to emerge: The more biodiversity you have, the more choice consumers have and the more likely gardeners will be to find seeds that thrive in their climates. Buying from a diverse pool of plant genes offers gardeners a whole spectrum of plant attributes to select for. “Not only can you find tomatoes that are well-suited for your area, that are going to perform well,” Carmody explains, “you’re also going to have so much choice.” If you’re gardening on a patio, there are countless cherry tomato varieties; there are tomatoes particularly well-suited for cooking, others that are ideal for slicing. And, of course, a range of visually exciting shapes and colors.
But biodiversity’s importance extends beyond the vagaries of taste and location; it’s an essential characteristic of a vibrant and resilient ecosystem, and preserving heirloom varieties helps maintain diversity. “The bottom line is that we’ve lost a lot,” says Carmody of the dramatic narrowing of the pool of available plant genetics that has occurred in the modern agricultural era. Quantifying the loss is indeed difficult, and the very metrics by which biodiversity is judged are subject to debate. But according to one report from Oregon State University, 90 percent of the crops that were grown in the U.S. a century ago are no longer grown commercially or maintained by major seed companies. More than 400 pea varieties were listed in seed catalogs in 1903; today, just two varieties account for nearly the entire domestic commercial crop.
“The main issue from Seed Savers’ perspective is that we’re keeping varieties in the Commons,” Carmody explains. “The varieties that we perpetuate and grow are for everyone. Fundamentally, as a business practice, we could put ourselves out of business if everyone is growing these and saving the seeds.” That hasn’t happened just yet. In fact, Seed Savers continues to grow—“hugely so,” according to Carmody—as interest in heirloom plants has increased. And that makes it easier to expand the network of seed donors, who come to the Exchange with new varieties to share. As long as Theodore Meece beans and Collier Cucumbers are being planted, those varieties have a future. Which, in aggregate of thousands of varieties, makes an impact not just on one families vegetative legacy, but also on the overall state of agriculture.
Planning an Heirloom Vegetable Garden
If you’re starting from seed (rather than plant starts), choose easier varieties to begin with. Growing from seed can be a challenge, especially if you’re a first-time gardener. There are plenty of popular backyard crops that are easier to grow from seed, including lettuces, beans, herbs, and radishes
For tougher crops, begin with plant starts. Any nursery that stocks heirloom seeds will likely sell heirloom starts—the four-inch plants are much easier to cultivate, particularly where certain varieties like tomatoes and chiles are concerned.
Looks aren’t everything. The flashy names, shapes, sizes and colors of heirloom vegetables are part of their draw. But don’t get too distracted by those attributes when planning your garden—you’ll want to pay close attention to other factors (see next bullet).
Read the fine print. Paying attention to yields, the amount of space each plant will need, what kind of exposure a variety requires, and the like, will help you make choices that work best for your garden space, climate, and personal preferences.