Ever wonder what the big deal about heirloom vegetables is? Apart from looking beautiful and tasting delicious, speckled lettuce, purple potatoes, golden carrots and orange beets are actually protecting us from an ecological catastrophe, like the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. Whereas blight can wipe out an entire single crop like it did during the potato famine, diverse crops are more resilient to disease. Saving seeds and protecting heirloom varieties will ensure that genetic seed diversity is not totally lost.
Heirloom plants come from seeds that have been passed down through the generations. Unlike seeds that are artificially pollinated, heirloom varieties rely on natural pollination from insects or the wind. Heirloom seeds are eco-friendly in that they are typically grown on a small scale using traditional techniques versus the mass produced hybrid seeds that come out of giant multinational seed companies like Monsanto.
The best way to keep these colourful jewels alive is by actively saving and trading seeds. Seed saving is great for a number of reasons. In the first place it’s economical. Buying new seeds every season can get expensive, but with heirloom varieties you only pay for them once. In the second the cultivar adapts to your garden’s conditions, which means over the years you will develop a strain of fruit or vegetable that is perfectly resistant to the pest and diseases specific to your soil and climate. Finally and perhaps most importantly is that saving seeds is essential to food-security. I’m not saying that the apocalypse is coming anytime soon, but knowing that you have the veggie growing know-how and a collection of disease resistant seeds, makes you that much less dependent on the system.
If you’re new to seed saving you might want to check out a Seed Exchange event happening in your area. These are usually held once a year in the early spring and are a chance for gardeners to share their knowledge and swap seeds. There are also several not-for profit organizations that promote heirloom seed knowledge and are an excellent learning resource. The Seed Savers Exchange, which started in 1975 and is based out of Iowa, is one example. The company publishes a fantastic catalogue with a myriad of heirloom seed varieties each year.
Even if you’re not an avid gardener, heirloom vegetables can be found in most farmers’ markets and are increasingly showing up in grocery stores. So, next time you’re out shopping don’t be afraid to reach for the gnarly tomatoes or the purple potatoes they’ll make every summer meal you make more colourful and they’re a sure way to impress your friends at your next dinner party.
Written by Elena Lewis