In Defense of Heirloom Vegetables

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"Is gardening just a hobby or are we trying to do something a bit more serious, like reducing our 'food miles' and growing fresh food we know we have some control over? There are folk who spend time and money doing up old cars, but do they drive to work in a Model T Ford? Or those who love heirloom clothes but do they turn up for work in a crinoline, or gaiters, or a top hat and tails? No. So why the obsession with heirloom veg?"As someone who has confessed, more than once, that I am obsessed with heirloom vegetables, Noel Kingsbury's recent post on Gardening Gone Wild (Garden or Museum -- What's the big deal with heirloom veg?) got me thinking. In the end, I find myself even more drawn to heirlooms.

The central argument he makes is that if we are really trying to do something meaningful, such as reducing our food miles by growing more of our own food, that we should embrace "modern scientific plant breeding" (including, as he mentions near the end of the post, genetic modification of vegetables) and disregard heirlooms. He says, that heirlooms are "poor yielding, finickity, unreliable" and therefore not suited to trying to seriously feed ourselves.

I have something to say here. (Surprised?)

I am able to feed my family, in Detroit, for half of the year, easily, from heirloom vegetables grown in my 1/4 acre lot. I only grow heirlooms, and I grow them organically. I started growing heirlooms the way many of us do; I was attracted by the colors, the whimsical names, the rumors of their incredible flavors. And as I grew more and found that the flavors were even better than I'd heard, I just kept going. I never set out to grow a "hybrid-free" garden. It happened that way, over the years, simply because I found heirlooms worked better for me.

Are some heirlooms hardier, more disease-resistant than others? Of course. Finding the ones that work best in your garden is a process of trial and error, as is every gardening endeavor. I've grown plenty of hybrids over the years that I found seriously lacking in vigor or flavor, and sometimes both. So to say that, one to one, a hybrid is always better than an heirloom is just not something I can agree with. Also, if heirlooms are so weak and finicky, why have generations of gardeners continued to save their seeds? There must be something worthwhile about them.


Then, there's the availability issue. If you're buying hybrid seeds, you have to keep buying them. You can't save seeds, because if you try to plant any seeds you save, there's no telling what you're going to get. I'm not a huge fan of relying on some company somewhere to decide which vegetables I can grow. Seed companies are notorious for dropping seed varieties fairly frequently. Just because you find a variety you like this year, doesn't always mean you'll be able to find it again next year. You're limited to a tiny percentage of available varieties: those hybrids that seed companies have found to be most profitable. I like a little more freedom than that.

All of that said: I really don't care what anyone else grows in their garden. If you like growing hybrids, and it works well for you, that is great, and I couldn't be happier for you. The more food we can grow for ourselves, the better. But I don't understand this desire, as heirlooms have become more popular with gardeners and shoppers, for critics to tear down the quality of heirlooms. If our goal is to grow more of our own food, to set our industrial agricultural system on its head, aren't we all on the same side? You grow your hybrids, I'll grow my heirlooms, and we'll both be happier and healthier because of it.