Why heirloom seeds & veggies matter

This post is part of a series of educational articles on gardening, self-sufficiency and food independence. That’s what The Liberty Garden is all about. To find out more about the mission behind The Liberty Garden concept, go here. Or read all the archives.

I love purple carrots. Yellow tomatoes just make my day. Orange beets, blue potatoes, bell peppers the color of dark chocolate, speckled lettuce, and purple green beans all absolutely delight me. I had read all of the foodie and greenie arguments about preserving our gardening heritage and fighting the Man at Monsanto through heirloom vegetables. But alas, I confess; it was the colors that really got me into starting my vegetables from seed and focusing on heirloom varieties. I guess I’m a sucker for novelty. I’m also a sucker for saving a buck, so I began saving seed from open-pollinated cultivars.

What’s the difference?

Heirloom tomatoes

First, I should lay out the difference between open-pollinated and hybrids plants. Open-pollinated cultivars (cultivar means a cultivated variety of any plant) are pollinated by the wind or insects. Seeds have been selectively saved over generations to pick the traits the gardener wants, leading to the many different open-pollinated cultivars. If you save the seeds from these plants, you can expect the next generation to be pretty similar to the parent, assuming no cross-pollination. Heirlooms are generally defined as open-pollinated cultivars that have been passed down over the years (some say at least 50 or 100 years).

F1 hybrids are the first generation breeding of two different cultivars, resulting in a whole new cultivar. The characteristics of the following generation, however, are an unknown. It might be more like one of its grandparents, like something else entirely or it might be sterile (a mule, for instance, is an F1 hybrid of a horse and a donkey, and cannot reproduce). F1 hybrids may be the arranged marriages of the plant world, but they are certainly not to be confused with genetically modified seed, which is more the vegetative equivalent of the Bride of Frankenstein. Hybridization is pretty old-fashioned stuff.

Hybrids tend to be very uniform from plant to plant. This uniformity is great for the larger scale farmer. Everything ripens at the same time. The tomatoes on one plant look just like the tomatoes on the next. Hybrid veggies are often bred for characteristics that help them get to market in perfect shape rather than for taste. Because of the labor, research, and development that goes into creating hybrid seeds, these seeds are also generally more expensive.

gene theil's organic heirloom carrots


Why heirloom plants?

Such characteristics are not very valuable to the home gardener. We prefer our tomatoes to ripen over time, so we have time to eat and preserve them. Fifty pounds of tomatoes all at once is just a pain in the ass. Also, heirlooms were generally selected for the best taste and vigorous, healthy growth in the particular region from which they come.

Seed saving

In my mind, however, the best reason to use open-pollinated varieties is so you can save seed. There are myriad reasons to save seed. Foremost is that seed isn’t cheap and if you save seed, you only pay for it once. Another lovely benefit is that the cultivar adapts to your garden’s conditions. If you grow several plants of one cultivar each year and continuously save seed only from the best performing plant, you will develop a strain that is resistant to the pests and disease in your area, and is adapted your soils and your climate.

Early fall haul by wayneandwax


Then there is the important issue of self-sufficiency and food security. With your veggie growing knowledge and collection of open-pollinated seeds, you make yourself one increment less dependent on the systems in place and the agricultural powers-that-be to keep yourself alive, healthy, and thriving. It feels paranoid to think that way, but disasters happen often, wars are all around us, governments sometimes fail, and every now and then, civilizations collapse. Besides as far as survivalist actions go, saving seed makes you look less crazy than stockpiling weapons, buying gas masks, getting into ham radio, and hoarding antibiotics.

Some favorite varieties

Naturally, I have some open-pollinated cultivars that are dear to me: delicious, beautiful and easy to grow in my dry Montana garden. If you are tempted to try my favorites, keep in mind that I am in Hardiness Zone 4b, and receive less than 11 inches of rain each year (and therefore have to irrigate quite a bit). If you live in Florida, I’d bet your favorites will be quite different.

  • Red Russian Kale– This kale is my best friend in the garden. It grows whether the weather is hot or cold, never bolts, is highly productive all season and resists pests when all of my other brassicas are getting munched. And it’s damned yummy. Johnny Seeds says it’s for salad mixes, but I always cook it in olive oil or steam it. It holds up well, even to overcooking, and even freezes well.
  • Dragon Carrot– These carrots are a deep purple on the outside and a brilliant orange and yellow on the inside. They have an incredible bold, spicy flavor that is best raw.
  • Purple Russian/Ukrainian Purple Tomato-My favorite all-around tomato. These deep maroon, fist-sized tomatoes have a wonderfully nuanced, sweet flavor. Owing to their deep hue, they make beautiful sauce, and are equally great in salad. Unlike some larger heirloom tomatoes, they almost never crack.
  • Burpee’s Golden Beets– Golden beets have a much milder, more delicate flavor that is great with a bit of grass-fed butter. People who claim not to like beets often love these. Bonus: no disturbing, red bowel movements!
  • Blondkopfchen Tomato– These beautiful bunches of bright yellow grape tomatoes are ridiculously sweet and ridiculously abundant. If I am careful about pinching the suckers, I have no problems whatsoever with this breed.

What about you?

Have you used heirloom plants in your garden? Tried some at the farmers market? What are your favorites? Any stories to share? Tell us in the comments.

Categories: The Liberty Garden


Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation

Have you heard about the Paleo diet and were curious about how to get started? Or maybe you’ve been trying Paleo for a while but have questions or aren’t sure what the right exercise program is for you? Or maybe you just want a 30-day meal plan and shopping list to make things easier? Then Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Paleo Transformation is for you.


  1. KarmaPolice says

    As an avid gardener who lives in a premier tomato growing area, I can tell you that most heirlooms tomatoes will never fail to disappoint.

    Disease resistance, productivity, and general fussiness will make you a convert back to hybrids in short time.

    Furthermore, unless you are very adept at controlling cross-pollination your second generation tomatoes will not be the same, as tomatoes cross-pollinate easily.

    I have attended many tomato tastings and dry-farmed Early Girls absolutely crush 99 percent of heirloom varieties in taste, with the exception of standard, true Brandywines. But Brandywines are notoriously stingy plants.

    If you are worried about food security, vegetable gardens, with the exception of potatoes, are very low in nutrition and high in energy input.

    Chickens along with pastured beef and lamb are far superior.

    • says

      You touch on some issues that (while I don’t entirely agree) I didn’t get into in this blog post because it would just get too long. First, I really don’t believe in in dogged devotion to heirloom (and I value open-pollination above heirloom!) if the cultivars you try fail. For instance, where I live in Montana, spring goes from cold to hot in an instant with no cool in between. So my broccoli always always bolted. This year I’m trying a hybrid variety that is supposed to be tolerant to both cold and heat. However, you’d have to pry my heirloom kale from my cold, dead hands! Some things work, some things don’t.

      I have heard people claim that heirlooms are especially susceptible to disease and pests or are hard to grow. I haven’t experienced it much myself. Part of that may be that I live in a place that gets less than 11 inches of rain a year, so disease is less prevalent. Maybe it’s management techniques (if I’m feeling proud), maybe it’s luck, maybe I’ve picked varieties that are less susceptible or the varieties you’ve had experience with were more susceptible. I have run across particular cultivars that were annoyingly picky. I stopped growing them.

      Seed saving can be easy or hard, it all depends on the species. Which is why I placed links to books and sites with more info. I certainly don’t save seed from everything (ex: squash species of which have more than one variety), but my (non-potato leaf) tomato seeds have been fine.

      As for flavor, my brandywines were not that awesome. My early girls (F1) were ok. My Purple Russians would blow your mind. Perhaps it’s a soils or climate thing.

  2. steven says

    I have noticed that many people are not aware of the places they can go to obtain heirloom seeds and where I live there are not many physical places you can go to find them. Luckily enough, there are many online companies that are making heirloom seeds easy to get too.

    I use Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. They have a fantastic variety and are very reasonably priced. Best of all, many of the orders come directly from the farmer. My Russian Banana, fingerling potatoes came in a bag with information about the family farm they came from and contact information if I had any questions. You can’t do that at your local big box home improvement store.

    • says

      The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sounds great! You make an excellent point that heirlooms aren’t always easy to find. I’ve had to go through Ye Ol’ Innernet because they aren’t available in my area that I’ve found. If folks are lucky enough to find a local source of heirloom seeds, those seeds will be the best adapted to their region’s particular quirks, so there’s a little extra motivation!

  3. says

    Great blog! I got here via a Native Seeds/Search Facebook post.

    I too am a seed saver (and blogger), and I’m not fanatical about only open-pollinated varieties. I can’t save seed from everything I grow in my little garden space, so I pick and choose . . . I grow F1 sweet corn, for example.

    I am also a fan of Red Russian kale. It’ll over-winter here (North Central Washington, lows around minus 20) if mature enough and mulched enough in the fall. Then I gather the seeds the next growing season.

    Other varieties I save seed from are Italian parsley; red-beard scallions; tomatillos; Stupice, Roma, and Brandywine tomatoes; purple-podded pole beans; and purple-podded snap peas. I might be forgetting something. Of course Jerusalem artichokes and Egyptian walking onions just keep propagating themselves. Other things just keep self-seeding and if I think about it I collect seed (in case someone might want some).

    • Paula Skvarch says

      I am new at this. This year will be my first time to save heirloom seeds, tomatoes and cucumbers. Can you give me some advice and where I can research the process?

      Thanks, Paula

  4. says

    Great article, folks!

    Something I want to interject here that might be even more important to most Paleo readers.

    Heirloom varieties have been shown to be more nutritious than hybrid varieties. Not all heirlooms are more nutritious than all hybrids and not all hybrids (but, definitely, most of them!) are nutritionally deficient but, do to the selection process which promotes appearance and yield without consideration of nutrition or (usually) taste, hybrids have slid far down that slippery slope of nutritional decline along with most other commercially produced foods.

    A few years back Dr Al Kapuler, plant breeder of the original, did some serious research on the nutritional content of tomato varieties (he used ‘free amino acids’ as his nutritional indicator) you can read his papers here: http://tinyurl.com/kapuler

    It pretty much answers the question “Is a tomato a tomato a tomato?” definitively.

    Michael Astera is also working with improving the nutritional value of produce by balancing the soil minerals. Soil minerals have to be balanced because commercial farming extracts minerals from the soil without replacing them. Commercial farming (and other forms of bad farming practices) have depleted the soil that food is grown in. (Even your backyard garden soil may have been depleted by farmers decades before you bought your lot!!) Astera’s work is based on the soil science of Dr William Albrecht, who was the inspiration for the founding of ACRES USA, The voice of eco-agriculture. Although controversial, like much in the paleo realm, it proves itself by working. Not just in lab testing by in animal trials, too. You can read about Astera’s work at thenewagriculture.blogspot.com/ (I should point out that it is understood by Astera that soil biology is all important to a plant’s ability to uptake minerals. All the eco-ag programs promote a vibrant diversity of biology within the soil)

    Bottom line: it’s starting to appear to this farmer (ME!) that combining the ability of heirloom plants to accumulate nutrients from the soil with the Astera/Albrecht program for making sure that plant has access to the molecules it DNA requires by getting minerals back into the soil in such a way that the plant can take them up is the way that we are not only going to have higher nutrition in our food but we are going to start eating plants that have the nutritional density that our paleo ancestors ate.

    There, I said it!

    By recovering the old genetics, which we can prove provide a different nutritional profile in plant foods, and by restoring the soil to a STATE of NATURE that was pre-agricultural disturbance and depletion, we will come closer to having foods that have actual paleo nutritional density.

    I always assume that Man does not currently know enough about nutrition to make any meaningful assumptions about what an plant needs to fulfill it’s full DNA potential.

    I believe we need to restore the soil to a truly primal soil so that all the possible substances, the ones known to man and the ones unknown to man (Gromlin, one of the most important substances in humus development and thereby perhaps the most important substance in sustainable farming, was only discoverfed in 1992!!) and allow plants that have genetics that have been proven to sustain humans for generations to pull what they need from the biological and mineral complexity of the soil.

    This becomes more and more important as we realize how much better humans take in nutrition from plant and animal sources than they do from pills in a jar. (This especially applies to minerals!)

    I’m happy to give references. I’m just ranting now. Keep up the good work, Amber!

    • says

      This is really cool stuff! I had originally wanted to mention the nutrition aspect in the post, but as I researched it, I couldn’t find much past hearsay. Good to see that people are trying to actually research it! I also agree with you that soil health is the key to not only the health of my crops, but my health in eating them. I’m definitely going to be looking up some of the stuff you’re talking about! Thanks!

  5. Charles says

    I love me some heirlooms. I actually proposed to my wife by hanging her ring on a Cherokee Purple plant. We don’t save seeds due to growing so many varieties of plants each year. I’m pretty sure that our cherokees end up taking in a little brandywine pollen and so on.

    We grow anywhere from 10-15 different tomato plants each year (LOVE THEM ALL). Some hybrids, some heirlooms…all delicious.

    Great post Paleo Man!

  6. Elisabeth says

    Territorial Seed Company, a local Northwest favorite, has a tomato taste off every September. As far as I remember, Early Girls have never won. What’s good in your area may not be what grows well and is tasty elsewhere. Here in Oregon we can’t grow a lot of varieties that grow well back east, as we get cool nights for most of the summer (which gives us fewer “heat hours”) and we have a shortish season between frosts. We had a really cool and cloudy summer last year, and my Black Krim tomatoes won my heart for ripening in the first place and being so darned tasty to boot.

  7. says

    Excellent post. I grow tomatos every year. I find tomatos to be one of the easiest plants to grow (I live in CA) and you get a lot of tomatos for a little work.

    A few years back I grew about 8 tomato plants on a small 4x10ft patio. I had no idea that I would end up with over a hundred tomatos.

    Plus the taste of a home grown or heirloom tomato is amazing!

  8. says

    Thank you for the link on seed saving. I have never done it, but I can see that in the end, it is way less expensive than constantly buying seeds, especially the heirloom variety.

    I love how I am learning more and more about gardening as we go!

  9. says

    We hear a lot of talk of GMO’s these days, what foods contain them and are they really so bad for us? First let’s understand a little about GMO’s. There’s a bacteria that lives in soil known as Bacillus thuringiensis that produces a toxic substance that kills pests on food crops (corn and soybeans, for example). You could say that it contains organic and natural pesticide. Somehow, scientist familiar with genetic engineering realized that they could take the toxin-producing gene from the bacteria and introduce it into crops. After a few tries, a crop strain that produces the natural pesticide was found and proven to be more resistant to attacks from ravenous insects.

    You might ask “Is it such a bad thing to have insect resistant plants for food consumption? “ It seems like a good idea at first until we start seeing consequences in our health. Unfortunately, the toxic substance that’s produced by the soybeans could accumulate in our bodies, and it is difficult to say what are its long-term impacts. What is even more distressing is that the genetic material that causes the soy to produce natural pesticide can be transferred to the genetic structure of native bacteria that inhabit your intestines, and they may continue making toxin for decades. And the possible problems don’t stop right here. In many cases, GM food products have been shown to threaten us with health problems, including:

    Fragments of genetic material from GM crops have been found throughout the body and even brain of cattle that have been fed GM foods.
    Foreign proteins found in GM food products can cause mild to severe allergic reactions. In some countries, the incidence of soy allergies jump to about 50 percent after GM soy was made available.

    A couple of years ago, a supplement that uses GM materials were released to the public without proper tests. Before it was withdrawn off the market, it might be linked to nearly 40 deaths and thousands of other reported health problem cases. You should think hard about how GM foods can affect your family, and find a way to limit the amount consumed and if possible eliminate GM foods that could already be present in your everyday eating habits.

    GM foods often look similar with unmodified foods, so it can be tricky to tell whether a food product contains GM ingredient, especially if you are shopping for food products in countries with advanced agriculture technology, such as United States. There is an exception, though, for example the European Union, all GM food products must be properly labeled to let buyers know that they contain GM ingredients. When you are trying to determine which foods that contain GM ingredients, it is a good idea to know which animals and plants are usually modified. The most common are soybeans and corn – two of the most important calories sources in many countries.

    Recent estimates show that roughly three-fourth of soybean crops and about a quarter the corn crops have been genetically modified in the U.S. That’s a vast amount of food! Both crops are used to produce many different kinds of food ingredients that are used in processed foods (for example, high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil are found on many processed foods in the grocery store). Some scientists say that when we add up all the GM foods that are made with GM ingredients, nearly 80 percent of foods that are sold in grocery store in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients in some sort of way.

    Several other crops are regularly messed with at their genetic level, including wheat, rice, alfalfa, squash, papaya, tomatoes, canola, sugar cane, sugar beets, cantaloupe, flax and potatoes. This is not a complete list by any means, as it’s next to impossible to obtain accurate information about which crops that have been modified genetically. The reviews and regulations of genetic modification on food products are lax and sparse at best. And it isn’t limited to plants. Major bio-tech companies are now making GM animals, too. Until now, cows, goats, fish, and pigs have been genetically modified to enhance some of their benefits for human and for now it seems that trend isn’t slowing down. Just like with GM plants, too few rules or regulations exist to curtail the use of GM animal-derived ingredients for food in the U.S., so it can be really tough to know what has been genetically modified and what hasn’t. So what you should do when entering a grocery store and find shelves of foods that are likely have been altered genetically? In some countries, there are no requirements for GM foods. The real way to ensure you are not buying or consuming GM foods is to find a “100 percent organic.” label. That’s actually a viable practice to follow whenever you have the opportunity.

    Many animals are fed GMO derived feed. According to Weston A. Price Foundation, meat, dairy, farmed fish and eggs are given GMO fed from corn, soy and wheat to raise these animals for market for consumers to buy. In order to avoid GMO-fed meats, dairy products, fish and eggs; look for organically fed animals or 100 percent grass-fed. Look for organic dairy products that are derived from cows that are not injected with bovine hormones to increase milk production.

    Tomatoes, potatoes, papaya, zucchini, squash and canola oil are other GMO crops. These crops are not commonly known as GMO crops, according to the Weston A Price Foundation. When shopping for vegetables, purchase organically grown fruits and vegetables.

    Soybean and cottonseed oils are being grown with genetically modified pesticides encoded into the DNA of these plants. Cottonseed has grown as a valuable GMO crop beyond manufacturing cotton for clothing. The oil is used for margarines, fat hardening and most commonly used for potato chip frying. According to Margaret Mellon, Ph.D., J.D. and Jane Rissler, Ph.D. with the Union of Concerned Scientist, GMO crops increase the possibility of introducing new allergens to humans with the cross-pollination of new genes from other plants, animals and microorganisms. Introducing new genes to plants from animal, human or other plant sources that normal wouldn’t cross-pollinate under natural circumstances may pose a risk to humans.

    Corn is used primarily as a concentrated sweetener for baked goods and carbonated soft drinks. High fructose corn syrup is widely used in consumer goods. Cooking oil made from corn oil is derived from genetically engineered corn. Bees and monarch butterflies populations have decreased with the growth of GMO corn. The GMO foods pose an environmental threat by destroying bee and butterfly populations, according to Mellon and Rissler. Bees and butterflies naturally pollinate flowers of crops that ensures the natural growing cycle of plants. By disrupting this cycle with the introduction of corn crops that are coded with a pesticide introduces plants that naturally are not supposed to survive. The coded pesticide inside the GMO crops kill insects that are not resistant to the pesticide. Scientists do not fully understand the environmental effects of losing bees and butterflies.

    But now they are seeing the impact on butterflies and bees, scientist have discovered that populations are declining and mutations are being found in their DNA.

    Huffington Post reports on studies done by the Russian Academy of Sciences, and completed in 2010. Researchers fed hamsters GMO soybeans over a two-year period. The GMO soybean-fed hamsters had poor weight gain and a high infant mortality rate. By the third generation, most of the GMO-fed hamsters were sterile. An earlier study in 2005 at the Russian Academy of Sciences used mother rats and their offspring. More than half of all baby rats whose mothers were fed GMO soybeans died within three weeks. Surviving baby rats suffered from low weight, poor growth and sterility.

    One of the modifications made to GMO corn is the insertion of genes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. According to the Mothers for Natural Law website, the Bt genes are used to control larval stages of insects that damage corn. The toxin in natural Bt is an effective organic insecticide when dusted on a crop in the traditional manner, and it degrades naturally. The molecular structure of the Bt toxin in GMO corn, however, is unnaturally truncated. The Bt toxin is released from the roots of the GMO corn into the soil, where it remains bound to soil particles and does not degrade. One bacterium developed for GMO seed corn specifically designed for ethanol processing left residues that made the soil infertile. Subsequent corn crops grew three inches tall and died.

    So as we can see the benefits of GMO crops are outweighed by all the long term consequences. GMO’s cause severe health risk and screwing up the natural order of things for profit. There is nothing good or healthy about GMO foods, and te be told different is just being lied to by big Pharma, FDA, Monsanto, and USDA.

    So how do we avoid all these foods if it seems most of our food chain has been introduced to GMO’s? Here some things to look for:

    On labels of products look for PLU code and look for these numbers:
    If it’s a four digit number, the food is conventionally produced. If it is a five digit number beginning with an 8 it is GM. If it is a five digit number beginning with a 9 it is organic.

    Make sure your eggs say (natural or cage free-free range) and 100% organic. Purchase beef that is grass fed and 100% organic with no injected bovine growth hormone. Although alfalfa and other grain can be GMO in their own right before being fed to animals, you will have to find a company that does not use these crops. Shopping at your local farmers market and butcher can increase your safety in your food. Remember that anything that comes in a box is usually fake food filled with GM ingredients. So make meals from scratch and know where your ingredients come from. Labels can be misleading so read thoroughly.

    To ensure the purest quality food in your families food supply is to grow your own food. It may seem like a lot of work, but modern farmers and urban farmers are popping up everywhere. Using new gardening techniques, you can produce 25% of your food supply and 100% of your fruits and veggies supply. Having peace of mind when eating is really a big deal and people need to take this seriously. There are people and companies out there who will lie to you for your money. Keep your money and grow your own food supply or as much as you can. The benefits of your health and peace of mind is priceless.

    • Julia says

      The above comment is over a year old, but I feel the need to point out that hybrid seeds and produce are not necessarily gmo products. A hybrid is a cultivar bred for desirable characteristics from two parent plants (Mendel used hybrids in his famed genetic experiments with pea plants.) There is a place for heirloom AND hybrid varieties, for instance heirloom strawberries may taste sweeter, but will rot before they reach supermarket shelves. A time and place for each variety. Please don’t let uninformed fear-mongering scare you away.

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