MASTER GARDENER: There’s an heirloom seed for your garden

Brandywine tomato has been around for more than 100 years and has a ribbed rather than smooth fruit. (Courtesy photo)

Brandywine tomato has been around for more than 100 years and has a ribbed rather than smooth fruit. (Courtesy photo)

Now that winter is approaching, it’s time to plan what you’ll be planting next spring. One area that has sparked interest in many gardeners in recent years is the planting of heirloom seeds.

Heirloom seeds are defined by several criteria. The age of the seed is one criterion that is looked at; some define heirloom seeds as being at least 50 years old, while others state that the seed must have been introduced before the 1940s to the 1950s. In any case, an heirloom seed is one that has been passed from one generation to another, carefully grown and saved. Think of an heirloom seed like a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation.

Another key criterion of an heirloom seed is that it can be harvested from the plant, saved, replanted and the same variety will re-grow next year. This is not true of the hybrid seeds that that are produced by artificially cross-pollinating two genetically different plants of the same species. A seed saved from a hybrid plant will not grow true to either parent so a gardener will need to purchase new seeds each year.

One leading characteristic of heirloom varieties is that they have a depth of flavor. For example, most store-bought tomatoes lack the flavor that a home-grown – especially an heirloom tomato such as the Brandywine – tomato has. Many of today’s gardeners are looking to recreate the flavor of the vegetables of the past.

Another benefit of heirloom seeds is that they are adaptable to their environment within two to three growing seasons. During this time period they show better vigor, production, flavor and an increase in disease resistance.

Numerous vegetables, annuals and perennials can be grown from heirloom seeds. The one vegetable that is very popular right now is the heirloom tomato. Brandywine tomato has been around for more than 100 years and has a ribbed rather than smooth fruit. The Hubbard squash is well known but is starting to disappear. Another old heirloom seed, the Early Scarlet Horn carrot, was introduced in 1620 but now is very difficult to find. A famous corn variety was the Golden Bantam. Beans, lettuce, melons and watermelons are other vegetables that have heirloom seeds that can be planted by today’s gardener.

Heirloom seeds can be obtained from numerous sources, including seed catalogs. Seed Savers organization – www.seedsavers.org – is an ideal place to explore the possibilities in heirloom seeds. The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants is another source for seeds and Landreth Seed Company, founded in 1784, offers an assortment of old, heirloom vegetables.

Go exploring and find the seeds that fit your gardening needs.

Mona Warlick, a Master Gardener, is a trained volunteer of the Mississippi State University Extension Service. For gardening questions, call the Help Center at (662) 620-8280 in Lee County or (866) 920-4678 outside Lee County and leave a message.