One thing about a mild winter, it sure gets you in the mood for spring planting. Seed catalogs have been arriving for several weeks with pages of colorful vegetables and flowers from every kind of plant imaginable.

Today, with organically grown vegetables becoming more understood and easily accessible even more people are exploring growing vegetables at home. Gardeners are discovering the joys of heirloom gardening. No, it is not hanging your grandmother’s lace around the garden, but it is planting tomato plants with the same seed type she would have used 50 years ago.

There are several reasons why people believe in collecting and planting seeds from vegetables, and even flowers. Especially now with all of the genetically altered foods, the protection of genetic diversity in plants especially food plants has become an important issue. If you have ever tasted an heirloom tomato, the debate is over; you will not need to know any more information. The rich, juicy flavor of an heirloom vegetable just cannot be beat.

Another good reason to save and use heirloom seeds is because looking at a box of heirloom vegetables is like looking at a box of Christmas ornaments. Red tomatoes with oranges stripes down the sides, or with purple flesh. There are apple-green eggplants, purple carrots, and scarlet red and pink beets that are circled inside like a bullseye! Just beautiful! How about an orange, yellow, or white watermelon, or cucumbers the size and color of lemons that you pickle! I cannot even imagine how fun it would be to garden with your children this summer and reaping the rewards as they devour these fun delectables.

If you have ever smelled an old-fashioned lilac or rose, then you know the other reason that so many enthusiasts have turned to heirloom seeds. When I was touring Andrew Johnson’s gardens a few years ago, I picked up a book on heirloom roses at the gift shop. Heirloom flowers maintain the unique fragrance to that plant which modern flowers cannot compare, they only hint at. It seems that as we manipulate the process of hybridization to increase the size of the bloom, intensify the color of the flower, shrink the size of a lilac bush, or aim for another aspect of a plant, we lose some of fragrance. Hybridization is also done for other improvements, too, like disease and temperature hardiness, but only an old-fashioned will have the original intense fragrance.

Heirloom gardening is nothing new – in fact, it is as old as mankind itself. Since people began to set down roots we saved seeds to plant them from one year to the next; somehow along with our “advancements” we forgot the importance of keeping some of the finer things of life. Check out some of these seed companies, look at the seed rack next time you are at the market, or maybe there are some heirloom seeds in the catalogs arriving at your door. At any rate, I hope you are able to plant some heirloom plants this year and invite some colorful variety into your life. After all, life is just too short not to eat a purple carrot!



• D. Landreth Seed Company (Since 1784): Oldest seed company in the United States

• Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Since 1982)

• Kitazawa Seed Co (Since 1917) 

• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Since 1998)


-- Lynn Youngblood is the Executive Director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City, Missouri. Reach her at