By Andrew & Stacey Whitman
Growing up, my family had two very large gardens and we grew most of our own vegetables, many of which my mother either froze or canned. She would also save some seeds at the end of each year in jars or envelopes to plant the following season.
I vividly remember the dried okra pods and dried field peas which we cracked open to scavenge the precious seeds. I also remember trying to collect dried corn and my mother saying that we couldn’t use it. She explained, to my amazement, that they were “hybrids” and you would not get the same thing the next year if you planted it—you might get a really nice stalk, but the ear would be scrawny or might not even be the same color.
In fact, many things we grew in the 1970s like tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash were all hybrids and we depended on the big seed companies to supply our annual needs. So much so, that many great and carefully developed varieties of traditional heirloom fruits and vegetables were almost lost to the world.
As a new generation of gardeners emerges, the definition of heirloom versus hybrid plants should be revisited. When you choose to buy an heirloom, you can plant the seed, grow the plant, and save the seeds of your best plants to start all over again the next growing season.
If an heirloom tomato is planted, for example, you can dry some seeds from a few select tomatoes which you can start in trays and plant outside the next growing season after the danger of frost. You may even discover plants coming up all by themselves in the springtime around your previous year’s garden—they are called “volunteers,” and don’t be afraid to transplant them and nurture them.
However, if you buy a non-heirloom (hybrid), you cannot save the seeds and expect to get a hearty, healthy plant. Like I discovered as a kid, hybrid corn is the result of cross-pollinating one type of corn with another. The idea is to take a strong trait that each one exhibits and breed them into a new plant.
Perhaps one is more disease resistant and another can flourish with less need for water, so the idea would be to cross-pollinate the two and end up with a corn plant that has both of those traits and thus be more likely to succeed. The drawback is that you must completely rely on a store to provide that seed year after year because seeds taken from hybrid corn cannot reproduce those traits on their own.
In recent years, my wife and I have gone back to traditional seeds. We even visited a local heirloom seed company (Baker Creek in Mansfield, MO) and were given a personal tour. We were very impressed by their high standards and the way they care about their employees. We saw how they source rare heirlooms from all over the world and first grow them in special greenhouses to test their characteristics and hardiness before offering them to the public.
We encourage you to experiment with varieties and discover your own favorites. Heirloom tomatoes, for example, not only come in all shades of red and pink, but also yellow, orange, purple, and even black and white. They range from small, cherry-sized tomatoes for salads to 2 lbs. beauties like the mortgage lifter variety that will overwhelm a slice of bread and even boasts low acidic content. Corn also comes in all sizes and colors, but some varieties can be ready to pick in as little 60 – 65 days, compared to the typical 90 days, which is great if you have a short growing season. You can save the seeds with confidence and enjoy the freedom and independence of self-sustained gardening as our forefathers did.