While these seeds have been around for a long time, the popularity of growing with them has grown exponentially in recent years. Why is this happening and what are heirloom seeds?

People are starting to realize that heirloom seeds are the only way to grow food rich in flavor and nutrition. And if you’re looking for a way to grow delicious vegetables, you’ll want to know what heirloom seeds are.

What You'll Learn

What is an Heirloom Seed?

There is no exact definition of how old a seed must be to be considered heritage, although some sources cite 40-50 years.

By definition, heirloom seeds are varieties that have been handed down through generations, usually through the family, community, or village. There’s a reason the word “heirloom” is associated with old, traditional, and often hard-to-find seeds. Seeds are conveyed down through generations of families and are rarely sold in seed companies or gardening stores.

They are non-hybrid seeds, non-GMO, and can be open-pollinated or self-pollinated plants. When plants are grown from heirloom seeds, they remain true to type, with no need for hybridization to produce offspring. They are usually more nutritious than commercial varieties and can be planted as annuals or perennials.

heirloom seeds varieties

What are Heirloom Vegetables and Plants?

Heirloom vegetables are grown by local farmers and gardeners and are not bred commercially. These vegetables are heirlooms because they have been grown them through generations. Their genetic characteristics are the same as 50 years ago. They’re also referred to as “living history,” resulting from hundreds of years of selective breeding and cultivating. Most of the heritage varieties we enjoy today result from careful natural selection. The best specimens are then given on to the next generation.

Today, people are more aware of the importance of eating organic foods and the benefits of using heirloom vegetables, fruits, and plants. Many of these legacy plants have a rich history in the United States and were grown by American farmers before the widespread use of commercial seeds and pesticides.

Are Heirloom Vegetables More Nutritious?

The heirloom movement has gained momentum in recent years, with many farmers and gardeners embracing the idea of growing a wide variety of heirloom vegetables. The theory behind this is that these vegetables are healthier and more nutritious than conventionally-bred and mixed vegetables, and it’s a practice that’s gaining traction.

According to research study based on 43 garden vegetables over 50 years, older varieties are healthier, have better nutrition value, and have more vitamins.

heirloom corn

What is Special About Heirloom Seeds?

Older generations among us remember that our grandma’s vegetables were tastier with a much richer flavor. Today biggest producers of potatoes cultivate only the four most common varieties you can buy in grocery stores or in supermarkets.

Regular or modern vegetable seed is increasingly adapted to the needs of large producers with a goal: harvest as soon as possible and adjust to machinery. That is why today’s tomatoes are all fort and thicker bark – to make it easier for machines to harvest them without damage.

Unfortunately, old varieties lost their aromaticity, taste, and nutrition value when adopting these modern improvements. Modern varieties also mature simultaneously, while small farmers or gardeners aim to have vegetables for as long as possible throughout the season.

The specificity of heritage seeds lies in often unique and exciting stories about the people and families who have grown them and how they manage to save them over the years. Those seeds are non-GMO and non-hybrid, and they are closest to what nature gives us.

growing with heirloom seeds

What’s the Difference Between Heirloom and Organic?

Heirloom and organic are not synonyms; however, both terms imply that a food product has been grown without using chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, or pesticides. They do not mean the same thing. 

  • Heirloom means that the seeds were passed down from generation to generation without any changes.
  • Organic means that the seeds were planted, grown, harvested, processed, and packaged in a free manner of harmful chemicals. You can sow heirloom seeds, but if you treat your plants with pesticides and chemicals, produced vegetables and grains taken from your plants won’t be organic.

An organic seed has been grown according to environmental standards, which must be certified and can be a hybrid or heritage seed. The certification process through the National Organic Program NOP includes inspection of agricultural fields, methods, and records to ensure that the producer follows the standards of such cultivation, such as cultivation without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or fungicides.

Heirloom vs. Hybrid vs. Genetically modified GMO

Heirloom plants were developed through natural selection and typically passed down from generation to generation. They are also highly sought after because their unique genetic characteristics provide plants with superior qualities and adaptability to environmental change.

Hybrid is a term used for a plant that has been created by crossing two different varieties. Refers to combining two-parent plants to create a third plant with improved traits. For example, by striking a fast-growing variety with the high-yielding one, you can create a mixture that combines both characteristics. A hybrid can be a plant of two different species or two plants of the same species.

Hybrid varieties can yield more and has more solid fruits than old varieties. They are also more resistant to weather conditions, pests and diseases. The advantage of hybrids is that you can choose the essential characteristics and thus make farming easier.

In agriculture, genetically modified organisms or GMOs refer to seeds or plants that have altered their genetic makeup. Genetic modification of plants is typically done in a laboratory by inserting foreign genes or DNA from a different species into the plant’s genome.

Only large food producers see an advantage in this kind of GM crop. They’re subject to intellectual property law, so keeping and saving them is illegal. Most often, garden vegetable seeds are not GMOs, mainly because the focus is on the larger world agricultural market. Small gardeners don’t have to worry about buying GMO seeds by mistake.

gmo concept

Why Should You use Heirloom Seeds?

There are many benefits of heirloom vegetable varieties, and one is they taste better. We’re used to buying fruit and vegetables in shops picked for weeks or even months before consuming them. On the one hand, it is good that such foods can last longer, but a more extended shelf life means a lack of taste and nutrition value.

Old varieties are more nutritious than those hybrids from grocery stores. Heirloom vegetables are recognizable for not always ripening at the same speed, which is excellent for gardeners who want to harvest throughout the season.

Heirloom seeds can also be more disease resistant than hybrids and are better suited to your local conditions.

Another advantage of heirloom seed varieties is that their breeding is a way to preserve the genetic biodiversity of our food supply. Overall, the number of seed varieties available on the global market has, over time, significantly decreased, mainly due to the impure pollination of plants with other types. For this reason, it is challenging today to talk about the truly old, so-called grandmother’s varieties.

Heirloom radishes

What are the Disadvantages of Heirloom seeds?

One of the disadvantages of heirloom seeds is that they are not as easy to find as hybrid seeds. You can’t just walk into a local seed shop and ask for heirloom seeds. You have to know the type of vegetable you want to grow and then search for seeds.

  • Heirloom seeds are a scarce breed, and they are usually sold only in small quantities. If you can’t find them in your area, you can order online, but you should find ones that will adapt to the soil and climate in your region.
  • They can also suffer more from pests and diseases than hybrid seeds. Hybrids are crossed with more resilient varieties to conditions and less attractive to pests.
  • Heritage vegetable varieties will often produce fewer fruits and won’t be visually attractive like supermarket vegetables.
  • Some heirloom varieties are more resistant to drought, some to moisture, and some to diseases.
  • It isn’t easy to find an old variety of certain types of vegetables that would bring together all the necessary qualities, as is the case with newer varieties or hybrids.

Growing several old same vegetable varieties in our garden are needed because it is impossible to predict the weather conditions and difficulties that can accompany them.

heirloom tomatoes


Do Heirloom Seeds Expire, and Can You Reuse Them?

Some heirloom seeds have a longer lifespan than others. Most of them last for several years if kept in a dry and cold place. The type of seeds, environmental conditions, and how the seeds are stored may affect their germination.

The best conditions for storing seeds are dark, dry, and cold. Dryness is the most important because a small amount of moisture can cause seed degradation due to the development of pathogenic organisms or their early activation.

It is best to store seeds in hermetically sealed jars, cans, or seed containers in places such as refrigerators or cellars. You can add rice grains or silica gel to jars to prevent the presence of moisture. Although proper storage conditions will help prolong the seed life, the sustainability of many species will begin to decline regardless.

Some seeds will maintain high germination rates for up to five years so that you can reuse them. Still, some, such as lettuce or onions, will lose their germination energy within a year.

stored heirloom seeds in jars

Will Heirloom Vegetables Reproduce Seeds?

Heirloom seeds are reproduced through open pollination, requiring pollinators like insects, water, wind, or other animals. After bolting (flowering), plants will produce seed pods with seeds that you can save for future planting. All seeds sown from these plants will have the same traits as the parent plant.

Because of open pollination, plants you intend to save seeds from for next year’s crop must be grown safely away from other plants to avoid cross-pollination.

Some tomatoes, beans, peppers, eggplants, and peas varieties are self-pollinated, so you don’t have to worry about cross-pollination. Make sure when you are purchasing these to check with the seller which ones.


Suppose you’re looking to start growing healthy traditional vegetables. In that case, you should know that they’re not only a great way to save the seeds from your plants and pass them on to your children, but they also offer you many benefits.

By planting those vegetables, you’ll be able to get the best nutritious results from your garden and preserve the genetic diversity of the plant species. Often these plants will give you smaller yields. Still, gardening will become an immense joy because the reward is worth the effort. You will traditionally learn something new.