So many gardeners these days love to grow special heirloom variety plants for many different reasons. I get it, heirlooms have a lot of great qualities. But, what about their not-so-great qualities?
Growing heirloom seeds can come with disadvantages like pest and disease susceptibility, slow development, low fruit production, labor intensiveness, and their ability to cross-pollinate with other plant varieties.
If you’re new to gardening, growing heirlooms might not be the best starting point for you.
Keep reading to learn more about these disadvantages and to determine if growing heirlooms is a good choice for your garden. I’ll also chat about hybrids and why they are a great alternative if you’re struggling with growing heirlooms.
What are heirlooms?
Heirloom plants are those that have been around for many years and passed from generation to generation. Similar to “heirloom” items that we might pass down for generations in our own families, seeds can be passed down too. Some heirloom plants are hundreds of years old!
These plants have remained true-to-type over the years meaning that the plant has not changed over time. When you plant an heirloom seed, you know exactly what to expect when it grows. Unlike hybrid plants, which are bred for very specific traits, with heirlooms, what you see is what you get.
There are tons of heirloom variety plants and seeds out there on the market. But, heirloom tomatoes and apples are by far the most popular of all the heirloom fruits or veggies you could grow. I’m sure we’re all familiar with Brandywine tomatoes or Cortland apples.
Many people choose to grow heirloom plants because their flavor quality and profile tend to be significantly more pronounced than their hybrid counterparts. Heirlooms are also important for anyone who is looking to save seeds.
If you want to learn more about saving seeds, you check out any of these articles:
How are heirloom seeds created?
The process of developing heirloom seeds is quite simple. The plants pretty much do the work for you. If you let heirloom plants grow past their prime, or go to seed, then you can save the seeds for future plantings. Thus, you have your heirloom seeds.
But, you can only save seeds from heirloom plants to get more heirloom seeds. If you try to save seeds from hybrid plants, you won’t get plants that are true-to-type in the next growing season.
Another thing that makes heirloom seeds different from hybrids is that they’re all open-pollinated. Open pollination simply means that a plant is pollinated through natural means like air, water, insects, birds, etc.
Hybrids are not generally open-pollinated because they’re created in a closed environment, like a greenhouse, to prevent any chance of cross-pollination with unwanted varieties.
This open pollination is one of the reasons that it’s possible to save seeds from heirloom varieties but not hybrids.
Do heirloom and organic mean the same thing?
Nope! Oftentimes, these two words are used interchangeably, but they actually mean two different things.
The word heirloom simply refers to the type of plant and how it reproduces over time. Organic has more to do with the growing practices involved in production.
Heirloom plants can be organic or they can be non-organic. It just depends on the methods you use to grow them. If growing organically is important to you, then make sure to buy heirloom seeds that are certified organic.
You can tell if a product is certified organic by looking for the “USDA Organic” label on the package. Seeds listed online will have an “OG” listed next to them to signify that they are organic.
Disadvantages of heirloom seeds
Although heirlooms have a lot of perks that people enjoy, they also come with their own set of challenges. Here are some of the disadvantages that I think are worth mentioning before you decide if heirlooms are a good choice for your garden.
Pest and disease susceptibility
Because heirloom seeds are not bred to select for certain strong traits like many hybrids are, they tend to be more susceptible to pests and diseases.
Many heirloom tomatoes that I have tried to grow have been quickly overtaken by blight before they reach maturity. And for those of us working with smaller garden spaces, blight can be a tricky thing to navigate because it stays in the soil.
Many varieties of hybrid zucchinis are also resistant to powdery mildew which is a common problem among cucurbit plants.
Having hybrid varieties that are resistant to blight and mildew is extremely helpful when it comes to prolonging the life of your garden.
Heirloom plants can also take significantly more time to develop than their hybrid counterparts. I’m going to keep going back to the tomato example because they’re the heirlooms that I know the best.
Many heirloom tomato varieties can take up to 80 days to reach full maturity with some taking even longer. Assuming you can get your tomatoes started early enough, it’s going to take them all summer to grow. Here’s a great article with info on starting seeds early.
Hybrid varieties like Early Girl or Juliet can reach maturity in as little as 60 days. That’s almost a whole month faster than most heirloom varieties.
Heirlooms tend to be a bit more labor-intensive than many people may be expecting. Because they’re more susceptible to pests and disease, they require early and constant scouting to stay on top of anything detrimental that may come their way.
Heirlooms can also grow to be a lot bigger than certain hybrid varieties. You may be thinking that that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when your garden starts to become a jungle, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed.
With plants like tomatoes or certain squash varieties, they can require strong trellising systems to keep them under control. Heirloom flowers and other fruit crops can also require frequent pruning to keep them flowering.
Alternatively, many hybrid plants are bred to be much more compact, making them easier to manage and saving you space in your garden.
Less fruit development
While their fruits do tend to be much more flavorful, heirloom plants produce significantly less fruit than hybrid varieties.
Depending on the needs of your home, this may not be that big of a deal to you. But if you’re into food preservation or you like to sell the produce in your garden, then not having enough fruit can be a big problem.
As I mentioned earlier, heirloom plants are all open-pollinated, making them great for seed saving. But, with open pollination, there runs the risk of some plants cross-pollinating. This is especially common among squash varieties.
If you save seeds from a plant that has potentially crossed with a different variety, your seeds will not grow true-to-type when planted in the next season. In the case of squash, there’s a chance that the fruit may not be edible at all.
Are hybrid seeds better than heirloom seeds?
It depends on who you ask. To me, one isn’t better than the other but a lot of hybrid varieties just work so much better for my garden. I get more food without the stress and worry of pests and diseases wiping out my plants.
As I mentioned earlier, growing heirloom tomatoes can be a challenge for me in my garden because I live in a colder climate (Zone 4!) and tomatoes take so long to grow and ripen. Oftentimes, I get a frost before my tomatoes are even ready to pick.
But by growing hybrid tomato varieties, I am much more pleased with my tomato harvests.
For us gardeners on a budget, hybrid seeds also tend to be cheaper than heirlooms and are much easier to find in stores.
After reading all of those disadvantages, you’re probably wondering if you should even buy heirloom seeds at all. Ultimately, it’s up to you to figure out what’s right for your garden.
If maximum food production is your gardening goal, then maybe heirlooms aren’t a good choice for you. But if you like experimenting and trying food that is bursting with unique flavors, then you should give heirloom seeds a try.
If you’re also into seed saving then heirloom seeds are the way to go since seeds from hybrid plants cannot be saved.
I recommend growing both heirlooms and hybrids in your garden as a way to see what you like. Just make sure when you buy heirloom seeds that you’re prepared to deal with their high-maintenance personalities and any challenges they may throw your way.