Heirloom Season Has Begun!

The snow has melted, and I’m ready to dust off my clogs. It’s time to start thinking spring. No, I’m not referring to Louboutin’s Spring Trunk Show—I’m talking about planning the garden. Seed catalogs start showing up in the mail in January, and that means it’s time to get going if you haven’t already.

I plant heirloom varieties in my backyard garden, and finding those varieties can be tricky, especially if you’re someone who’s accustomed to grabbing a random veggie plant at a big-box store. I’m going to share a bit more about why heirloom varieties are important to me, and where you can go in the Twin Cities to learn more about them.

What are Heirlooms?
The Seed Savers Exchange is the largest organization worldwide devoted to preserving heirloom varieties. It defines an heirloom as “any garden plant that has a history of being passed down within a family, just like pieces of heirloom jewelry or furniture. Some companies have tried to create definitions based on date, such as anything older than 50 years.”

Why are Heirloom Seeds Important to Me?
According to Seed Savers, it’s important to plant heirloom varieties to sustain food production: “The generic diversity of the world’s food crops is eroding at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. The vegetables and fruits currently being lost are the result of thousands of years of adaptation and selecting in diverse ecological niches around the world… Without these infusions of genetic diversity, food production is at risk from epidemics and infestations.”

For me, there is a certain charm associated with saving seeds. When I moved out of my parent’s house, my mother gifted me with a jar of her “rattlesnake snap” pole bean seeds. These are the same seeds of the same beans that I ate as a kid. I have planted and harvested those seeds, and will continue to do so because of the association with my family and my childhood.

Aside from the charm, the world of heirloom growing is fascinating and important. It’s exciting to be growing vegetables and herbs that contribute to biodiversity. It’s interesting to see how vegetables grow when they haven’t been genetically modified to be a certain shape, color, size, or flavor. There are so many varieties; you’re not likely to get bored growing or eating them. If you harvest your seeds, you might be able to start a dialog on the variety and its growing conditions with other growers and friends.

How Do I Order Heirloom Seeds?
Visit The Anderson Library, located at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, to view the new 2010 seed catalogs—they’ve got more than 1,000, with more arriving daily. If you can’t make it to the library, you can view the Seed Savers catalog and order seeds from Seed Savers online.

What If Starting From Seed Won’t Work For Me?
Not a problem:
* Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis sells heirloom seedlings. Plus, they specialize in organize gardening, sustainably grown plants, and eco-friendly products.
* Heritage Gardens sells heirloom tomato seedlings at Minneapolis’ Mill City Farmers Market.
* Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis sells heirloom seedlings, and their plants are grown using principles of sustainable agricultures. They use low carbon emission, high efficiency biomass furnaces to heat their greenhouses.

With help from these local resources, you can take part in the fascinating and important heirloom gardening tradition. Grab a magazine or book, talk with your local heirloom growers, and get started!