One of the best things we can do as gardeners, market gardeners and landscapers is grow some heirloom garden crops. This means varieties that have been around for at least 50 years and are open-pollinated.
These varieties can build food security and profit resilience.
Many varieties of vegetables grown in gardens and farms are filial 1 (F1) hybrids that have been created by breeding different varieties of the same crop together. This hybridization can lend many desirable traits to our crops, such as the increased sweetness of a turnip or less cracking in cherry tomatoes, as well as adding hybrid vigor.
But it also limits the resilience of our communities and businesses.
Yes, hybridization can occur naturally in nature, and cross-pollination is also a big part of the breeding process of new varieties. But relying on only hybrid varieties also weakens farms by:
- creating a dependency on imported seed
- reducing the likelihood of adapting our varieties to climate change
- denying farms and gardens additional income sources
For instance, if you buy in all your seed from seed producers and these varieties are all hybrids, what happens if there is a big run on seed and your typical order is short supplied? You may find you don’t have the seed you need to meet your garden yield or farm income goals.
With increasing changes in our climate system, the possibility of shortfalls in seed is increasingly possible. Moreover, the global and regional distribution of seed is less likely to supply varieties that will perform well across different regions.
The age-old selection of the best performing varieties for seed is one that allows for adaption to local and regional environmental pressures. But most seeds purchased for farm and garden use are adapted to different climates and various methods of production.
If organic arugula seed, for example, is grown on large acreage and has to be row covered to prevent flea beetle damage, it is less likely that the seed producer will develop a better variety. Rather, the producer is more likely to proliferate traits that require row cover protection.
Small growers are able to identify individual plants in their garden that show resistance to insect pressures or other new desirable traits. They can save seeds preferentially that have traits they specifically desire and that are locally relevant.
In addition, growing open-pollinated varieties provides another source of income for the farm.
Take squash for instance. You can grow and sell the squash. But you may also save the seed and dry them and pack them. This provides the farm with additional product in the late winter and early spring before new crops start to grow.
In this way, you can extend the season and reduce your seed costs. You can supply seed for next year’s crop from your own saved seed.
With hybrid varieties, you cannot save seed. Whatever grows from those seeds will have unknown characteristics from a broad spectrum of genetic variability. That sweet turnip may not be good at all, and those cherry tomatoes may crack.
Although heirloom crops have their own difficulties, they also have great benefits, and the reliability from one year’s seeds to the next is predictable.
If you like the variety, saved seeds should continue to perform much to your satisfaction from year to year. Saved seeds will also offer up some unique mutations for your selection, and you can even breed a whole new heirloom.
Furthermore, by growing from your own seed you can help create food security and community resilience. The essential ingredient of local food should, as much as possible, grow locally. And seed is an undeniably critical part of this equation of resilience.
With increasingly unpredictable climate trends, not to mention socio-economic uncertainties, seeds from good, locally adapted varieties in our communities is a building block of community.
So why not pick a few crops and grow some old school varieties? All your produce doesn’t need to be heirloom, but choosing to grow a few open-pollenated heirloom crops is a great start.
One note: When growing open-pollinated varieties, mind you don’t cross-pollinate with other varieties. In some cases, like beans, very little cross-pollination occurs within a small plot. But squash and corn have a much higher probability of cross-pollination.
Select a few varieties and research them well. You’ll have some great heirloom crops to enjoy while boosting your own profitability and resilience.