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Heirloom seeds and why they are important for homesteaders

Do you plant a garden or raise any of your own fruits, vegetables or herbs? If so, do you plant heirloom seeds and save any seeds for the following year? I remember having a pretty big garden when we were growing up. We had a big tiller and plenty of composted manure, so we had a big harvest. I don’t, however, remember ever saving any seeds for the following year. Some people have always saved their seeds, but that thought never really occurred to me at the time.

Heirloom plants are open-pollinated, meaning that you can save seeds from them year to year. Seeds saved from these plants will grow plants that are true to their parents. Hybrid seeds are a cross between two varieties. If you save seeds from them, you will not get a plant that is like its parent. Hybrids are also sold for big profits and many times include genetically-modified genes that are patented.

heirloom cucumber pakistani
Heirloom Pakistani cucumber plant. Look at the width of the stem on this thing!
pakistani cucumber heirloom
Pakistani cucumbers growing in a bunch. They are small oblong fruits that are delicious!

Why are Heirloom seeds so important?

I am sometimes late to the party. And it took me until 3 years ago to really understand why heirloom seeds are so important. I work at a public library and ran across some articles on other libraries that had started a “seed library”. Not knowing how they worked or why, I knew I needed to find out. I got to listen to two amazing people who have worked with seeds and know all about their importance. Joseph Simcox, the “Botanical Explorer”, has traveled the world studying and searching for rare plants and ways to preserve them. Ben Cohen of Small House Farm is the regional coordinator of Gardens Across America and has been instrumental in starting seed banks and libraries in several states.

heirloom seed fingerprint fava
  Fingerprint Fava Seeds that were given to me by Joe Simcox. Look how unique and large they are!
fingerprint fava plants blossoms
Blossoms from the Fingerprint Fava plants. Gorgeous!

The most recent study on crop extinction was in 1983 by the Rural Advancement Foundation International. They found that in 80 years (1903 – 1983), 90% of varieties were no longer offered for sale and most of those were lost. How can this be? Farmers have fewer choices and can’t save their own seed because the seeds for sale are hybrids or patented modifications. When we rely on just a few varieties of plants, we lose biodiversity and that is what threatens global food security. By relying on single plants to feed so many people, we open ourselves up to plant diseases and extinctions. See this article for lots of interesting information.

Heirloom seeds are a good choice for homesteaders

Many of the old time heirloom varieties have better disease resistance and also better flavor. They do not work as well for commercial growers because they have characteristics that keep them from being easily automated. You should try experimenting with some new varieties each year.

Learning to save your own seeds is rewarding as well as money saving. Some plants are easy to save seeds from. These include beans, peas, lettuce, and most herbs. While listening to Joseph Simcox talk, he gave me several varieties of bean seeds from different countries. Some of them had only 1 or 2 seeds. I was excited but very nervous. The plan was to start with 1 or 2 seeds, grow them out and save seeds from the harvest. Through the Gardens Across America program, half of the seed harvest goes back to them and I get to keep the other half. I had a lot of fun documenting and watching these plants mature and keeping the seeds.

Heirloom seeds can be found at many online stores: Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirlooms, High Mowing Organics, Annies Heirloom Seeds and many more. Seed Savers Exchange website has lots of seed saving education to help you learn how to save seeds. I will be planting lots of them this year at work and at home, so follow along with me to learn along with me!

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