What does Heirloom mean? Are heirloom seeds special?
Updated: Jan 28, 2022
At Waystation Plants, we pride ourselves on supplying Barrie with the finest heirloom seeds grown here in Ontario. But many are left wondering, what exactly does "heirloom" mean? Read on to learn more.
In the 1800s and 1900s, what we now call "organic gardening" was the standard practice at the time. Canadian gardeners accepted risk and variation among their crops from weather, pests, and disease. When a gardener came across a particularly excellent variety, such as a drought-resistant tomato, or a particularly flavourful tomato, or a tomato that had exceptional colours, the gardener would save seeds from that variety with the intention of planting them again next year, hoping the outcome would be the same. They discovered that this method of seed saving was extremely effective at producing high quality results in their crops. Those seeds would be passed down from generation to generation as the "best" available, and became known as heirlooms for this reason. Thanks to the care and effort of the gardeners that came before us, many heirloom varieties still exist to this day.
Although the exact definition is debated, seeds can be safely classified as "heirloom" if the variety was being grown before World War II.
Today, Ontario produce is dominated by genetically modified (GMO) seeds, which fall under legal protection and copyright, meaning farmers aren't allowed to save these seeds, and are required to purchase new seeds every year. GMO seeds lead to predictable, consistent, and standardized vegetables that are essentially guaranteed to grow. These varieties are easier to package because they're all the same size and shape. They are less prone to bruising during shipment, they have a flavour that is generically pleasing, and they often have a longer shelf life. This is important because the world depends on produce that can be reliably grown on a mass-scale. Farmers need millions of seeds to grow their crops, and that quantity of heirloom seeds is simply not available for most varieties. Rather than saving seeds naturally to increase yield, many of today's seeds are genetically modified in a laboratory to increase yield.
As such, heirloom seeds are great for home gardeners because it allows them to grow a piece of history, knowing that Canadian gardeners long before them took the time and effort to assure these varieties would continue to exist for the next generation. Some gardeners strongly believe that the flavour of heirloom varieties is so superior that no growing season should be wasted on anything else. Others feel it's their responsibility to grow heirlooms to continue the tradition of preservation. If you're the kind of person who loves growing vegetables that are better than the grocery store, heirloom vegetables are the perfect addition to your home gardening adventures.