All together I grow upwards of 300 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers each year. The majority are certainly heirloom varieties, but I do grow some modern hybrids if I believe it offers something unique to the garden. Recall that my space is French Potager themed and we are always on the look out for the most attractive vegetables. I do always avoid growing anything that I can commonly get in a grocery store. This is not because store varieties don’t have something to offer, but that I am more interested in expanding my diet and discovering new flavor and textures. In terms of nutrient dense gardening, there is much more to consider here as well.
Many people believe that heirlooms are more nutritious than non-heirlooms but I think that’s hardly the case. It’s true that the genetics of an heirloom variety may contain higher amounts of certain phytonutrients as was made abundantly clear in Jo Robinson’s recent book “Eating on the Wild Side”. It is however equally likely that a modern hybrid can contain higher amounts of other phytonutrients. A hybrid grown in nutrient dense soil will outperform an heirloom grown in average soil, and vice versa.
In regards to genetics of heirloom plants, DNA only defines how the plant should be made, but it’s the environment that dictates the materials available for the construction. Think of the story of the three little pigs comparing the straw house to the brick house, they’re both houses but clearly one is more robust than the other.
Heirloom varieties are also generally more demanding of good soil nutrition, where commercial varieties were bred to withstand the nutrient poor and biologically devastated soils of the typical conventional farm. If your soil lacks energy, you will actually get a better response from hybrids than from heirlooms but be prepared to provide them with extra support as they will be sick.
Seed quality also makes an important impact in getting a good nutrient dense product. Low health plants will produce low health seeds that lack the rare minerals needed for maximum early plant health and reduced seedling stress. Poor seed is less dense, weighs less, smaller in size, less likely to germinate and is more susceptible to pathogenic attack. At this time I know of no commercial source that sells consistently high test weight seeds. Your best bet is to save the seed from your own quality plantings.
I also only purchase untreated organic seed. To me, any plant that needed chemical support is a poor candidate for your garden. Non-organic seeds are also sometimes treated with chemicals to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungus. This is because seedlings from these are in such poor health that they easily succumb to pathogenic attack. You cannot grow a nutrient dense product without the support of the soil microorganisms, so killing them is not recommended.
Lastly, I am located in eastern Washington and getting locally produced seed is always wise. This has two clear benefits. The first being that you’re supporting your local economy and not the economic interests of a pile of shareholders who could care less about your garden, and the second is that many of the seeds are already acclimated to the nuances of your particular climate. I encourage you to find some companies located near you too.
Seed sources I frequently use in the US Pacific Northwest, in no particular order:
- Irish Eyes Garden Seeds – the best source for potatoes. WA
- Territorial Seed Company – large selection of heirloom & hybrid. OR
- Uprising Seeds – very good heirloom seed selection. WA
- Filaree Garlic Farm – the garlic options are seriously amazing. WA
- Victory Seeds – great seed and better seed packets which I appreciate. OR
- Burnt Ridge Nursery – good selection of rare trees. WA
And here are some others that I use, also in no particular order:
- High Mowing Seeds – brilliant selection of good seeds. VT
- Seed Savers Exchange – heirlooms and access to many thousands more. IA
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – largest selection of rare and heirlooms. MO
- Bountiful Gardens – some unique varieties and a great grain selection. CA
- Sustainable Seeds – great seed selection and also has grains. CA
- Trees of Antiquity – best selection of heirloom trees that I’ve seen. CA
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds – good selection and a lot of cool gardening tools. ME