Dear Miss Floribunda,
I am thinking about getting a head start on my garden by planting indoors
and know that soon seeds will be appearing in supermarkets and grocery
stores. I am curious about what I’ve heard termed “heirloom” seeds. What
does this mean other than they come from obsolete varieties that somehow
got passed down? Is there any reason other than nostalgia for planting
them? I would assume the newer seeds would be improved.
Not Sentimental on Nicholson Street
Dear Not Sentimental,
The new seeds are hybrids and some are indeed improved in certain ways. Watermelons have been developed with flat bottoms that stack better on grocery shelves. Cucumbers have thicker skins that help them travel long distances with less damage. This doesn’t matter much in the home garden, but we all like the newer varieties of pumpkins that are less stringy, carrots without warts and tomatoes that are enormous or develop early. Not to mention flowers that are bigger than their predecessors or come in new colors or petal combinations.
On the other hand, old-fashioned sweet peas have a much headier fragrance than new varieties and old varieties of tomatoes have more flavor. The nasturtiums grown by Victorians reportedly were phosphorescent and glowed in the dark. It’s true that some hybrids are more resistant to disease, but in most cases it’s the old varieties that have successfully adapted over time to their climate and soil. They have passed on through seeds the characteristics that have ensured their survival. It would really be more accurate to term many of these varieties classic rather than obsolete.
This brings us to the main botanical difference between “modern” and “heirloom” seeds. Modern hybrids result from cross-breeding different varieties. When a hybrid plant sets seeds, these will either be sterile or produce plants unlike the parent. So far, attempts to develop hybrids that reproduce true to type have met with little success.
Heirlooms, on the other hand, are open-pollinated and always produce seeds true to type. As a result, “sentimental” types have given to friends and family a wide range of seeds that have successfully perpetuated the old varieties — and it is they who have affectionately termed these family treasures “heirlooms.”
If this doesn’t move you, my practical Cousin Parsimony points out that you can collect their seeds and grow the same plants year after year at no further expense.
You have a golden opportunity to sample the best of both hybrid and heirloom seeds on Saturday, February 9, when the Hyattsville Horticultural Society holds its fourth annual Hart Seed Sale. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Hyattsville Municipal Building (4310 Gallatin Street), you can browse a selection of seeds — handpicked for our climate — from the venerable Hart Seed Company, the oldest family-owned business of its kind in the country. You’ll find seeds no longer available to the average home gardener as well as cutting-edge new varieties; none are genetically modified.
In addition to the seed displays, information tables and pamphlets, there will be members of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society and the Community Garden on hand to answer questions. Other tables will offer gardening books, catalogs and magazines for sale as well as interesting pots and gardening implements. And members of HHS are as adept at the culinary arts as they are at the horticultural. For a nominal price you can sample hot soups and baked goods. Children are welcome.
Should you wish to help plan this event, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, January 19, at 10 a.m. at the Municipal Building. In the meantime, all questions may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.