We had a cold spring. The modern hybrids languished while the heirlooms took off despite the cool season. This proved that the hybrids did not have the wide range of climatic tolerances as the heirlooms. If I had not planted heirlooms, I would not have had a tomato harvest that year.
Tomatoes that ripen all at once on a perfectly sized bush aid in mechanized harvesting, but that's a very short season for fresh picking. Tomatoes that keep a long time in cold storage also please commercial farmers, but we all know what those taste like.
If a variety produces an entire crop of fruit each pretty much the same size, they fit into packaging assembly lines but offer little diversity in the kitchen. None of these benefits is of value to a backyard gardener, so why do we continue to grow the same modern hybrids?
Inside every modern variety, there are genes of earlier vegetables known today as heirlooms. Heirlooms were developed by farmers around the world to make plants better adapted to local conditions. Each year, growers selected the most vigorous, prolific and healthy individuals and gathered their seed to plant the next year's crop. This process of selection dates back to the dawn of agriculture. The foundation of each heirloom variety is the culture that created it, the climate that shaped it and the culinary traditions it sprang from.
Heirlooms are also problem solvers because we experience many of the same challenges as early farmers before the birth of agricultural chemicals. For example, the short growing season in Russia made farmers want crops that matured in a few short weeks. The fruit might ripen better when conditions are cooler-than-average, too. Knowing this tells a South Dakota gardener that this variety might work better in her climate than a modern one-size-fits-all tomato like Celebrity.
The seed of that Russian tomato seed, like many other heirlooms, doesn't live long in storage. If they stopped growing that variety altogether, the stored seed may last a few years and then it's gone forever. The only way to protect its unique genetic foundation is to grow plants every year and use those fresh seeds to grow it again the next year. This status of continual cultivation is vital to the Russian tomato and every other heirloom known today.
This is why there is so much interest in heirloom vegetables. Growing them is more than just cultivating a food crop, it's a significant act that helps protect the genetic diversity of our food supply.
It was abundantly clear one year when I planted modern hybrids and a group of heirloom tomatoes. We had a cold spring. The modern hybrids languished while the heirlooms took off despite the cool season. This proved that the hybrids did not have the wide range of climatic tolerances as the heirlooms. If I had not planted heirlooms, I would not have had a tomato harvest that year. Such lessons teach us much about the value of older gene pools and why they are so vital to our modern world.
There are a number of excellent heirloom-seed catalogs to choose from both online and in print. The Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org), for example, grew out of a nonprofit that helped gardeners connect around the world and trade seed of their locally adapted heirlooms with others from similar climates halfway around the globe.
For the adventurous cook, the curious foodie and the armchair traveler, selecting heirlooms to grow is fascinating as you learn the varietal origins and characteristics. But remember: This is far more than just shopping for plants. It's an almost sacred act that can help to save the world's food supply one seed at a time.
Other heirloom-seed catalogs:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (http://rareseeds.com/)
Native Seed/SEARCH (http://www.nativeseeds.org/)
Seeds of Change (http://www.seedsofchange.com)
Victory Seeds (http://www.victoryseeds.com/)
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.