There's nothing more vintage than a seed pre-dating the Second World War. Besides sounding really cool, heirloom seeds offer enhanced food security and improved crop hardiness. By becoming a seed saver, you too can reap the rewards of these tiny warriors—these simple tips will have you on your way to starting your own heirloom legacy.
In 1983, nursing instructor Mary Ballon faced a problem no tourniquet could fix: where could she—and other Canadian home gardeners—get high quality organic seeds? Ballon subsequently founded West Coast Seeds, and today the BC-based company carries on her vision, in part by supplying heirloom seeds and encouraging seed saving.
What are heirloom seeds?
“Seeds that have been grown and literally passed down from generation to generation for 50 years or more” is how West Coast Seeds defines “heirloom,” says Mark Macdonald, who oversees seed trials at the company. Heirlooms usually predate the Second World War and are a type of open-pollinated plant.
Open-pollinated seeds generally come from parent plants of the same variety or a single plant that self-pollinates. So long as varieties don’t cross, “Those seeds, they’ll come true to the parent plant,” says Macdonald.
Hybrid seeds “are a cross between two different varieties of the same kind of plant,” says Macdonald. The idea is that the desirable traits of the parent plants (such as disease resistance or earliness of maturity) will combine in the offspring.
Hybrids outperform some open-pollinated seeds in some environments, says Macdonald. So why save heirlooms?
The heirloom advantage
For all their strengths, we can’t save hybrid seeds year to year. Unlike an open-pollinated seed, a hybrid seed won’t produce a plant that’s predictably similar to the plant it came from.
“It raises the question: if you can’t save the seeds and plant them on from generation to generation, where does food security play a role?” says Macdonald.
This is where heirloom varieties shine: open-pollinated seeds can be saved, and heirlooms represent some of the best open-pollinated varieties around, as selected by our ancestors. Plus, the more plant varieties we keep alive, the better fortified our food supply is against disease or climate change.
“I think there’s a movement afoot to bring back those varieties because if we don’t plant them, they’re going to go extinct,” says Macdonald.
Because seeds from the most robust heirloom plants are the ones saved for replanting, and this “selection of the fittest” is repeated for decades in the same geographical area, heirloom plants can often withstand specific regional stresses and pests.
Taste and variety
Some hybrid vegetables have been bred for traits such as uniformity of size and ability to withstand shipping, while heirlooms have historically been bred for flavour that can be enjoyed right off the vine. Heirlooms also boast pleasing variations in size and colour. However, Macdonald hesitates to make blanket statements about whether heirlooms outstrip hybrids in terms of taste and nutrition.
“What you can say about heirloom seeds is that if this plant has been grown over and over from generation to generation for 125 years, that really speaks to its quality,” says Macdonald.
Heirloom seeds are generally less expensive. “The reason is that hybrid seeds require more effort and handiwork and investment to produce the seeds,” says Macdonald. Those cost savings grow if you save your own seeds.
Why seed save?
Seed saving is as simple as putting seeds from your homegrown veggies in an envelope—and planting them later. We want to preserve heirloom varieties, but we also want to help them adapt.
“Rather than simply storing seeds, the process of growing them over and over really impacts the genetics and the development—the evolution of the seed. You end up, oftentimes, with a much stronger crop,” says Macdonald.
If we treat heirlooms as our ancestors did—not as perfected plants, but as a project—we can refine their resistance to everything from changing climate to changing soil chemistry.
Which seeds to save
Some vegetables are less likely to cross with neighbouring varieties; these are the easiest to save seeds from and get similar plants year to year.
For beginner seed savers, Macdonald recommends
- beans (especially drying beans such as navy and kidney)
Pick an existing heirloom variety or, as Ballon once suggested, adopt a vegetable: find an open-pollinated variety that does well in your garden and start an heirloom tradition now. Ballon believed that “we can all help to build our neighbourhoods from garden to garden to garden”—and when we do, we build a better food system.
Thanks for the kale
Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale look nothing alike, but they’re all the same species (Brassica oleracea) and have a common ancestor: wild cabbage. These cultivars came about through selective breeding according to different cultural tastes in different parts of the world, says Macdonald. Just think: if our ancestors hadn’t selected one seed over another, there would be no kale!
- Brussels sprouts were popularly cultivated in Belgium.
- Broccoli was cultivated in Italy in ancient Roman times.
- Cauliflower is believed to have originated in Cyprus.
- Ancient Greeks cultivated kale; eventually, Italian, Russian, and Scottish varieties were developed.
Seed saving in 5 steps
Keep seeds labelled every step of the way with the variety name and the date on which they were harvested.
- Plant for success.
Plant different varieties far enough apart to prevent cross-pollination. For legumes and lettuce, plant more than 10 individual plants of each variety.
- Choose the lookers.
It’s tempting to eat the best-looking veggies, but those are the best ones to save for seeds.
- Harvest the seeds.
Once legumes have turned dry and brown on the plant, you can pick them. Allow at least six heads of lettuce to “bolt” (grow a flowering stem). Allow only the best of those lettuces to turn their flowers into fluffy seeds like a dandelion; harvest those seed heads once dry.
- Clean the seeds.
Flower heads and plant debris should be removed from lettuce seeds; legumes should be shelled. Legume seeds should be allowed to dry for at least two weeks.
- Keep seeds cool and dry.
“Keep your seeds in a paper envelope away from any obvious heat sources. Almost all types of seeds will be viable for three to five years,” says Mark Macdonald of West Coast Seeds. He does not recommend freezing or refrigerating seeds. For added moisture busting, store silica gel packets from previously purchased goods with your seeds.
For more tips on how to save pea, bean, and lettuce seeds, visit seeds.ca/diversity/seedsaving.
To learn more about heirloom seeds and food security, visit
- West Coast Seeds: westcoastseeds.com
- The Cottage Gardener: cottagegardener.com
- The Incredible Seed Company: incredibleseeds.ca
- Seeds of Diversity: seeds.ca
- The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security: seedsecurity.ca
Open an OP packet
Choose seeds that are marked “open pollinated” or “OP” and “heirloom” or “heritage.” Avoid hybrid seeds, which are often marked “F1.”