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What Are Heirloom Seeds?

It’s late winter, early spring, or fall and you’re thinking about starting some seeds for your garden. You’re not sure what kind of seeds to buy, but you’ve been told that heirloom seeds are good.

Your next question is, what are heirloom seeds? Are they any different than other seeds? Should you only buy heirloom seeds?

I have answers to these questions and many more. Next up: What are heirloom seeds?

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What Are Heirloom Seeds?

closeup photo of four brown wooden spatulas with seds
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Heirloom seeds are passed on from one generation to another. They’re different from other seeds because they are non-hybrid and they’ve taken a long time to cultivate.

A few traits that you will expect from heirloom seeds are:

  • Open-Pollinated
  • Passed down from generation to generation
  • Breed true
  • Not a hybrid
  • Not a GMO

What is Open Pollinated?

Open-pollinated means a plant is pollinated naturally by things like bees or other insects, birds, wind, rain, etc. This is different than hybrid pollination which is the intentional cross between plants.

(*Note, in an uncontrolled environment, it is possible for your heirloom seeds to cross-pollinate with other plants in its species resulting in a new plant variety. For that reason, people intending to sell heirloom seeds will often keep the plants in a controlled environment so they will continue to have the same plant from their seeds again and again).

Passed Down Through the Generations

There’s no completely agreed-upon timeframe for how old heirloom seeds must be, but there is a sense that it’s a plant variety that is so good that families and businesses determined it was worth keeping for generations.

Some people believe a true heirloom seed is one that existed before the hybridization of seeds. Others say fifty or a hundred years.

What is “Breed True”?

Breed true means you’ll if you grow them they will come “true to type.” Or in other words, the seeds you’re growing will be like the parent plant. You’ll get the same characteristics from the new plant that you did from the previous one.

What is GMO?

GMO refers to genetically modified organisms. Seeds without GMO mean they haven’t been modified in a lab (more on this later).

Heirloom Does Not Mean Organic, Organic Does Not Mean Heirloom

person holding a green plant
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A common misconception about heirloom seeds is that they are organic. You *can* have heirloom seeds that are organic, but they aren’t inherently organic.

If you buy organic seeds, then you’ll know that the seed producer that provided them followed a specific set of regulations that allowed them to call the seeds organic.

Are Organic Seeds Better than Non-Organic Seeds?

There’s quite a bit of debate about organic seeds and organic fruits and vegetables. While some people argue organic is better because farmers are not using chemical pesticides or herbicides, others argue that organic farmers still use chemicals on their plants.

I’m still a little unsure where I fall in this debate. True organic to most of us who care about it means farmers aren’t things like pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers. However, there are things that are made from natural substances that I still wouldn’t want to consume.

The EPA has a list of “Biopesticide Active Ingredients” that you can peruse to understand some of the natural things that might be used on organic foods and seeds.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard several sources claim that there’s no big difference between organic and non-organic farming. I have also heard many farmers say that the hoops one has to jump through in order to be called “organic” are unnecessarily difficult, and don’t necessarily mean that the foods are better for the consumer.

I tend to fall on the side of organic is better than non-organic, but perhaps not all that I hope it will be.

There’s your daily dose of farming controversy, do with it what you want. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

What Does Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Mean?

orange corn kernels
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Unless you are a farmer, you probably don’t have to worry about buying GMO seeds. Yes, you’ll see “GMO-free” labels on seed packets that you buy at your local nursery, but they’re not really reporting much. It’s the same thing when you see “Gluten-free” on something that never has gluten in it. It’s technically true, but it’s also a bit of a marketing gimmick.

There are some farm crops such as field corn, alfalfa, sugar beets, cotton, and soybeans that have been genetically modified, but your typical pack of seeds for your home garden will not include GMOs. The USDA has a list of bioengineered food you can check out if you’re interested.

You can read all about GMO seeds in my new post: What Are GMO Seeds?

What are GMOs?

Seeds that have been genetically modified have been changed in a laboratory setting through synthetic means. A hybrid seed is not the same thing as a GMO.

The USDA writes, “‘GMO’ (genetically modified organism) has become the common term consumers and popular media use to describe a plant, animal, or microorganism that has had its genetic material (DNA) altered through a process called genetic engineering.”

What is a Hybrid Seed?

closeup photo of sprout
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Sometimes people confuse a hybrid seed with genetically modified seeds, but they’re not the same thing. A hybrid is when two varieties of the same plant species are mixed to create a new variety. The mix of two varieties of seeds in the same family might be used to make a plant that’s resistant to blight while still maintaining the flavor people love. In fact, many people cross heirloom seeds in order to achieve the best of two types of plants.

In some ways, hybrid seeds are like buying an essential oil blend or a seasoning mix.

Hybrids can be great in your garden, and you may be surprised to know that many of the heirloom seeds you love today were hybrids in a former life.

The problem with hybrids is that they cannot be taken for seed storage. If you were to take a hybrid tomato seed, you would end up with a tomato plant that is very different from the one you planted. This means you are required to go back to the seed business year after year to obtain a variety that you like.

What are Hybrid Seed Generations?

You may have heard the term “first-generation hybrid seed.” A first-generation or F1 hybrid seed comes from successfully cross-pollinating two standard varieties.

If you see F2 or F3 hybrid seeds, these varieties will be less consistent and will likely not resemble the original plant. You can get an F2 hybrid seed by growing an F1 hybrid plant in your garden and then collecting the seeds. It’s unknown what type of plant you will get from growing F2 or F3 seeds.

Why Grow Heirloom Seeds

What are the main reasons why you should grow heirloom seeds? Your reasons may be different from mine, but here are some of the top reasons why people grow heirloom seeds.

1. Heirloom Seeds Give You a Taste of the Past

When you eat heirloom produce, you’re actually tasting the same produce that people ate decades ago. That’s a pretty cool thought!

2. Heirloom Seeds Stand the Test of Time

Another good reason to grow heirloom seeds is their quality. People are unlikely to carefully save and pass on seeds generationally that are of poor quality or flavor.

3. Heirloom Seeds Haven’t Been Modified in a Lab

The heirloom seeds you buy may have been hybrids at one point in their history, but they aren’t the product of lab work that introduces genetics into a plant that wouldn’t naturally occur.

4. You Can Save Heirloom Seeds

You can save heirloom seeds to grow the same crop again. You will have the same characteristics from the heirloom seed over and over again.

Note: It is possible if you grow your heirloom plants next to another heirloom plant of the same family (say a tomato plant next to another tomato plant) that you will unintentionally create a hybrid with cross pollination. To avoid this, use proper spacing between plants so they will not cross with other similar plants.

Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners is supposed to be a good guide to tell you proper distances of heirloom seeds to avoid cross-pollination`. I do not personally own this book, but I am interested in purchasing it.

If you would prefer not to order your books from Amazon, I recommend trying Bookshop.org. It’s an online book retailer that supports independent bookstores. You can choose a local bookstore to share in the profits. Here’s a link to Seed to Seed at Bookshop.org.

The Best Heirloom Seed Companies

Are you convinced that heirloom seeds are for you? Here is a quick list of some of the BEST heirloom seed companies available online. I have tried out three of these personally, but I polled a large group of gardeners/homesteaders for the remaining recommendations.

Seeds for Generations

Seeds for Generations is a small family-owned company and an affiliate of ours. I purchased these seeds last fall and I had very good success with the seeds that I planted. The radishes came up fast and hearty and the lettuce germinated well. I will try out the purple broccoli and leeks in the upcoming spring and report back.

I love supporting small businesses and I was so happy with the results of the seeds I planted. I am planning on making a bigger order soon to add to my seed collection so I will have more to tell you about by next summer.

They do not sell GMO seeds, but some of their seeds come from other suppliers. If you’re searching for organic, please make sure you buy the ones listed as organic. They have a good number of these as well.

Here are a few of the radishes we grew fall of 2022.

Baker Creek Seeds

Baker Creek Seeds is an extremely well-known heirloom seed company. I remember getting their catalogs years ago and wanting to purchase their seeds, even without any setup to grow them or anywhere to plant them (we were renting a place at the time without access to starting a garden).

If you look for heirloom seeds you will likely come across Baker Creek Seeds.

They offer a ton of varieties of plants and a lot of people love them.

I ordered quite a few seeds from them last year and had great success with the majority of them. I was not as successful with the watermelon and zucchini seeds that I planted, but I’m not sure if Baker Creek is to blame or if it was a strange year for melons in general (it seemed to be).

Baker Creek Seeds are not organic, but they are GMO-free.

High Mowing Seeds

I have not purchased seeds from High Mowing Seeds, but they offer a lot of heirloom seeds and are a reputable company. Not all of their seeds are heirlooms so be on the lookout for that. They do sell 100% organic seeds so if you’re looking for organic AND heirloom, there are a lot of choices.

True Leaf Market

True Leaf Market was recommended to us, and my Dad who I co-garden with is interested in purchasing some seeds from them.

Not all of their seeds are heirlooms, but they do have a large collection of heirloom seeds to choose from. They have some organic seeds for sale (512 seed varieties that are both organic and heirloom seeds).

Mary’s Heirloom Seeds

Mary’s Heirloom Seeds is another small company that was recommended to us. Her company offers a lot of advice and help, and they state they’re “only a phone call away.” Located in Texas, this seed company sources all its seeds from small family farmers and seed growers in the US.


MIgardener is a seed company recommended several times over. This business began in 2011, and their entire line is heirloom and organic. I also noticed that every seed they currently offer is $2.00, a great price!

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange had a lot of support as well. I appreciated in their FAQ section how transparent they were with their product, including mentioning that they do not use chemical treatments on their plants but that they did use diatomaceous earth (DE).

DE is considered organic, but it’s nice to know exactly what they are using on plants.

Their definition of heirloom is anything before 1940.

Important to note that they state that their seeds perform best in Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States.

Johnny’s Seeds

Johnny’s Seeds is a popular brand, and I did use some of their seeds last year with good success. It is important to know that they sell many hybrids as well as heirloom seeds. They do offer a line of organic/heirloom seeds.

The Importance of Saving Seeds

brown seeds
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Why is seed saving important, you may ask?

Here are some of the most popular reasons people save seeds from year to year.

  • Self-reliance. Saving seeds from year to year gives you the opportunity to have seeds on hand even when seed supplies drop and demand goes up, as we saw in the past few years. Some people say, control the food supply and control the world.
  • Self-reliance Pt. 2. Relying solely on seed companies means you can only buy what they’re willing to sell. They may discontinue a line of seeds that you love and you will no longer have access to it.
  • Saves you money. Some of us are frugal! A packet of seeds is relatively inexpensive, but it does add up when you buy thirty packets of seeds. 🙂
  • A good way to spend your time. If you enjoy gardening, this is one more thing you can add to your list of time well spent.
  • No middlemen. You know precisely where your seeds came from and the conditions in which they grew. Don’t want pesticides? No problem.

Do You Have Further Questions About Heirloom Seeds?

I think I covered a lot of questions about heirloom seeds, but if you have further questions, please ask them below!

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