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Heirloom Garden Seeds

Kathleen Roberts
Author Lynn Coulter

Planting heirloom garden seeds is a wonderful way to preserve antique varieties while providing yourself with flavorful, chemical free produce and beautiful, unique flowers. To help readers learn more about the benefits of heirloom varieties, LoveToKnow spoke with Lynn Coulter, author of Gardening with Heirloom Seeds.

Gardening with Heirloom Seeds

Gardening with Heirloom Seeds is a beautifully illustrated book that no gardener should be without. It is like having the ultimate seed catalog with detailed description of each variety, its history and how to cultivate it.

In this book you will learn about 50 heirloom varieties, organized by season. You'll also find information on sources to purchase heirloom garden seeds of your own and will likely enjoy the lined margins that allow you to take notes on your garden adventures. You can refer to the book again and again as you try new varieties and replant old favorites. Gardening with Heirloom Seeds is a journal and garden guide rolled into one. It would make a beautiful gift to yourself or your favorite gardener.

Interview with Lynn Coultner: Heirloom Garden Seeds

Learn about the benefits of using heirloom garden seeds in this interview with garden expert Lynn Coulter.

What are heirloom seeds?

Heirloom seeds are fruit, flower and vegetable varieties that have been around for 50 years or more. In short, they're the kind of plants our grandparents grew. By definition, they are also open-pollinated. That means, if you grow an heirloom seed, you get a baby plant that looks pretty much like the parent plant you started from.

Modern hybrids are different. Most hybrids have sterile seeds or, if their seeds sprout, they revert to one of the parent forms used to create them. So if you want to save seeds, either to grow your favorite varieties again next season or to avoid spending money on fresh stock, heirlooms are the best choice!

Why are they important?

Heirloom fruits and veggies taste great. Just taste a modern hybrid tomato, one of those bland, red orbs sold in the grocery store. Then grow an heirloom tomato-there are plenty of colors, sizes, and flavors to choose from-and you'll understand the difference after one bite. Modern hybrids have lost much of their taste because they've been bred for other qualities over the years, like long shelf life. But heirlooms retain a wonderful, old-fashioned, homegrown taste. In the flower world, developers have bred for bigger blooms at the expense of fragrance. Heirloom flowers offer rich perfumes for your garden. Also, heirlooms are a vital link to our genetic past. They're living antiques, passed down from one generation to the next. We need them for their genetic diversity.

Is it possible to have variety using only heirloom seeds?

Absolutely! There are thousands of heirloom varieties you can try. Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization based in Decorah, Iowa, is a great source for finding and sharing them.

What about diseases and pests?

Because heirlooms have survived for years without much human help-they are not hybrids remember-most have also adapted to the conditions and soil they've grown in. So most heirlooms are unusually resistant to pests and diseases, as well as extremes of temperature and rainfall. They're great for organic gardeners because they don't need lots of spraying, and may even need less water than hybrid varieties.

Are there any negatives to gardening with heirlooms?

Heirloom tomatoes can have problems with diseases, and they can grow tall enough to require staking. They may look bumpy and lumpy, and don't usually bear as heavily as hybrid tomatoes. But you can grow some hybrids and some heirlooms in your garden, and get the best of both worlds: disease-resistance and taste, from different plants.

But I must add: I've grown Brandywine tomatoes for three years now, and I've never had to spray! As for heirloom flowers-they may look more wildflower-y than you're used to. They don't all have short, stocky stems. But many gardeners prefer their willowy, graceful forms. I love heirloom flowers for their fragrance.

Saving Seeds

How does one save seeds from one year to the next?

Always start by observing your garden as it grows. You'll want to collect seeds from the healthiest plants, or if you're saving flower seeds, from the most beautiful or fragrant blossoms. Tie a bit of string around these plants so you'll remember where they are at the end of the season.

To save flower seeds, let some of the blooms remain on the plants until they're completely brown and dry. Then break open the seed pods or capsules, or shred the blossoms if you're collecting from marigolds or similar flowers and catch the seeds in a paper bag. Store the seeds in a cool, dark, dry place until you're ready to plant again. Be sure to label them.

For melons, scrape the seeds out of your ripe melons, rinse them in cool water, let them dry thoroughly and store them. For cukes or tomatoes, let some fruits ripen on the vines, then squeeze or scrap the seeds out into a glass jar. Add a little water and let the seeds and any pulp sit for a few days. Stir occasionally, until the goop starts to ferment. In a few days, the good seeds will sink to the bottom of the jar. Pour off the gunk on top, wash the good seeds until they're clean and let them air-dry before storing.

For beans and peas, let your pods get dry and brown on the plants. Then pick them and store the seeds as above, in a cool, dry, dark place.

Never dry your seeds in an oven or in direct sunlight-the heat will ruin them!

How long are the seeds good?

Different kinds of seeds will last for different periods of time. There's so much variation, I'd refer you to my book for more information.

How should they be stored?

Make sure your seeds are completely dry before you put them away, to avoid spoilage. You can store them in glass jars, paper envelopes or plastic bags. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry place, like a refrigerator drawer or closet.

Where can heirloom seeds be found?

You can find many heirlooms at your home and garden center or nursery, or order from an online or mail order company. In fact, you may already be growing heirloom varieties if you've ever grown a Black Beauty eggplant, which dates back to 1902, or a Brandywine tomato, which came from an Amish variety around 1885! To find other heirlooms, try Select Seeds/Antique Flowers, at, has a great selection of old-fashioned flowers. Here are a few more sources:

Here are a few places to see heirlooms growing: Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, at Monticello; Mount Vernon House and Gardens and Old Salem Gardens in North Carolina. And don't forget-Mrs. Obama planted heirloom varieties in the family's new garden at the White House!

Final Notes

What are your favorite varieties?

I love Moon and Stars watermelons. They are sugary-sweet, with pink flesh and a beautiful dark green rind that's spotted with a big yellow "moon" and smaller yellow "stars." I also love Green Zebra tomatoes, especially when sliced and served with good olive oil and some mozzarella cheese-a delicious appetizer! I have several favorites among the peas and beans, including Black Turtle Soup Beans and Vermont Cranberry (they have a good nutty flavor).

What else would you like readers to know about heirloom seeds?

You should give them a try! They are typically easy to grow, easy to manage with good organic practices, and they produce well.

LoveToKnow would like to thank Lynn Coulter for her time and for this informative interview. To learn more, check out her book Gardening with Heirloom Seeds or visit her website, Seedlings.

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Heirloom Garden Seeds