NY Times: Are We Heirloomists?


I am really enjoying New York Times' garden writer Michael Tortorello's humor and energy as a reporter.  And in yesterday's newspaper, he did an intriguing piece questioning a form of political correctness he refers to as "heirloomism."

Are heirloom vegetables really better in a home garden?  He interviews the always-amusing George Ball, CEO of Burpee.  Ball's company is the largest seller of open-pollinated seeds in the country, yet Ball sees the condemnation of hybrids as Luddite nonsense.  He suggests that inbreeding depression is inevitable in heirlooms: "Every product declines until it's replaced by new heirlooms."

Of course, until that day when a particular heirloom variety begins developing hip dysplasia like an overbred puppy, open-pollinated seeds do offer gardeners some advantages.  They allow gardeners to save the seed from plants that seem particularly well-adapted to their growing conditions–and in a few generations wind up with something that performs even better for them than the original package.

However, I'm no absolutist.  I see no reason hybrids bred for gardeners could not be fantastic.  But, as the piece mentions, not enough universities and small farmers are breeding for gardeners.  And those hybrids bred to meet the requirements of industrial farming probably explain why America's produce has grown less tasty and less nutritious over the years.

Also, so boring!  The fun of heirlooms is their eccentricity–shocking colors, shapes, sizes, etc. 

One more point in favor of heirlooms: they were bred before all kinds of modern inputs such as artificial fertilizers and pesticides were common.  They may be tougher because of it.  I spoke recently with a scientist who pointed out that older varieties may even develop symbioses with more effective microbes. For example, older varieties of soybeans attract rhizobia that do a better job of supplying nitrogen.


  1. It’s the absolutism that’s so crazy. Would we rather grow heirloom tomatoes and have them killed by blight than grow the blight-resistant hybrid toms now becoming available?

    And what makes people think that the plants we grow as heirlooms now are the same as the plants grown under the same name a hundred years ago? I don’t think I’ve ever come across a sweet pea specialist who says the ones we now grow under those old names are the same as the originals.

    At some point over the decades and centuries, seed of everything from heirloom carrots to heirloom cosmos has been saved by gardeners with little or no expertise or interest in maintaining the characteristics of the original variety. OK, perhaps someone saves seed from a plant in the row of snapdragons or lettuce that has more flowers or a denser head. But that is starting to create a new variety, not maintaining an existing one.

    The fact that a variety name has been around for generations, does not make the plants grown under that name inherently superior. We should assess the qualities of the varieties on offer and choose those that suit our needs – whatever names are attached to them.

  2. I agree that heirlooms are great…but I don’t think I would ever exclusively plant them. For instance, it was too hot too quickly last year for my brandywine tomato. But the hybrids did fine.

  3. I pretty much agree with everything Graham said. Whilst I’m no absolutist I am keen on OP varieties but those that I’m keenest on aren’t the heirlooms (unless they have a seriously good bit of history to them (like the “Fish” or “McMahon’s Texas Bird” peppers) so much as the new OP varieties bred by those who are aware what modern gardeners want and are crossing to produce this. Frank Morton’s amazing Shoulder to Shoulder Farm’s seed list and the more modern NuMex peppers are great examples. To me if we’re going to venerate anything it should be the skill to produce a variety that [still] does the job you want it to do well and the resultant variety whether its a century’s old squash variety or a brand new salad leaf crossed in someone’s backyard a couple of years ago.

  4. My eyes glazed over on the first page of the article. Too much painting in broad strokes. Too much not really understanding the issue to make a valid comment about it.

    As someone that routinely saves seeds from EVERYTHING growing in my garden – hybrid or heirloom – I’m here to tell ya, the folks that say you can only save seed from open pollinated varieties are lying. Yes your chances of not having the same crop you started out with are greater, but only slightly. Do it. You’ll see. I get some mighty fine fall cucumbers by saving seed from the first spring sown fruit. They just don’t have a name. So what.

    An entire additional article could be written about who grows the seeds that sit in the bottom of your seed packet. That’s where Seed Savers Exchange and Baker’s Creek shine brightly above the big companies like Ball. Gere Gettle knows the farmers growing the seed he offers for sale. He visits their farms. George Ball might fly down to South America once in while to check out the massive greenhouses growing seed for the international seed houses – but it isn’t the same thing.

    Unless home gardeners pool together some money to fund research into crops tailored just for them, universities will never work on their behalf.

  5. Probably like most gardeners, I plant both. I like the disease-resistance, cropping levels and dependability of hybrids, but the heirlooms are so interesting, flavorful and charming (plus the names and historical value are a draw, I admit) that I enjoy them too. I’m a happy camper going both ways, and if I plant something more than one year in a row, it’s not because I’m thinking about whether it’s an heirloom or not–it’s whether I had a good year with it, or it did well on the site, etc.

  6. I think when people plant “heirlooms” they are losing focus on what made that plant an heirloom to begin with and what made the heirloom intrinsically the better specimen. Seeds from a well-performing plant were saved by generation after generation of gardeners and grown in the same small local area.

    What gardeners need to do is save seed from non-hybrid varieties which grow well in their grrowing conditions, not those even 100 miles away.

    This requires a hand-to-hand exchange of seeds, knowledge, and a localism that is hard to come by. It is not growing the organic-labeled variety or the trendy heirloom grown by a few huge commercial growers and then shipped a 1,000 miles to a big box store garden center to be sold with an organic or heirloom variety tag.

    Your heirloom is not mine– nor should it be.

    This idea of “localism” is a sacred trust from one generation to the next with which too many of us as gardeners have broken faith.

  7. Not for nothing, but hip dysplasia isn’t limited to purebred puppies. Everybody’s got genes, even mutts and open-pollinated plants.

    The question is what genes, and if they’re being expressed. A carefully bred purebred dog may be less likely to have hip dysplasia, because its ancestors have been selected for freedom from that condition. When it comes to vegetables, that’s something a gardener has to figure out for herself. Some heirlooms are still superiour specimens; some aren’t.

  8. Wow. You found good garden writing in the NY Times? I swore I’d never buy it again after they published an article in the “Home and Garden” Section entitled “Don’t Try This at Home: Adultery in the Marital Bed.” Here is the link if anyone finds that too ridiculous to be true: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/13/garden/13cheat.html but do yourself a favor, don’t bother reading it.

  9. Yes Regina, that article was a bit over the top. The NY Times doesn’t have much garden writing, less than it used to when Anne Raver wrote most Thursdays. She writes occasionally now so check out her articles. Micheal T. is fun but is a very new gardener if my memory is correct. Only a couple of years ago he was growing some vegetables for the first time. And he doesn’t know what agronomy is not does his editor. See the first page of the heirloom seed article. Agronomy is about grasses (which do include corn) and does not include vegetables. Sorry, I am being snarky but you would think the NY Times would know that. Anyway the article was interesting and made some good points by presenting different views. Also made the point that Graham Rice did in a comment above–that the seeds are not necessarily identical to the original named seeds. Something I didn’t know and gave me more of the big picture.

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  11. > The fun of heirlooms is their eccentricity

    Yes!!! Kind of like certain ancient relatives (I, myself, am in this category), some of the charm of heirlooms is their capacity to talk to the homogeneity of the problem solvers, i.e. hybrids. I love the reliability of hybrids I grow and heirlooms in my garden succeed just often enough to keep me humble as a gardener (and, I hope, as an ancient, eccentric relative!).

  12. If you live somewhere like Miami, you learn that heirlooms, long grown in a hot, humid climate, don’t require God awful amounts of chemicals to keep pests and diseases at bay. I’m thinking of tomatoes, and especially of old garden roses.

  13. Is it true a good writer can write about anything? This column was provocative the way John Tierney is contrarian in the Tuesday Science section, if a little less irritating. He did a pretty good reporter’s job of calling and emailing and stitching together a concept, but as Laine said, he doesn’t have much garden experience. He’ll never be Henry Mitchell. I often wonder who the Times is writing for. When one of the weekly sections was Living, a friend called it “Having”.

  14. Heirlooms are cool introduce new gardeners to their grand parents past etc. However they are not tougher and do not tatse better. Like in a restaurant that claims how food is presented makes it taste better. Tell that to the blind man.

    Let’s leave the fun in gardening and grow just to grow

    The TROLL

  15. I read the same column-article last week, but found little worthwhile in what for me was an uninformed and unbalanced piece of reporting. Tortorello comes off as a shill for the big seed business, and condescends and condemns those who prefer heirloom seeds.

    I wrote less appreciably in a post I will publish tomorrow.

  16. If you take your heirloom seeds, don’t fertilize them at all then under or over water them, don’t weed them and in general just abuse them, then the crop that does come up has to be worth saving. Just a thought.

  17. I think to define “better” in this debate, you have to understand what a gardener’s objectives and priorities really are.

    I grow my garden for food. It’s not truly organic but it’s close. However, my garden plot is surrounded by other gardeners who run the pest control gamut from “bucketfuls of sevindust” to “I love whiteflies! Whiteflies everywhere!” All this, within inches of my vegetables.

    So, if it’s a plant that I need to grow for volume of food, I’m growing a hybrid. If I only need a few, or it’s a special delicacy (i.e. food with a story), I really, really enjoy growing heirlooms. Even with beetle holes, it’s a good story!

  18. Well, all I know is the stuff I grow that draws the most raves from people who eat them are……


    Orangeglo watermelon, Jimmy Nardello peppers, fish peppers, great white tomatoes, potato top tomatoes, red noodle beans, etc. etc. etc. etc.

    So I grow them because they taste good and gosh!……I don’t mind a bit of work to keep them healthy.

    As for volume, my heirloom tomatoes consistently outproduce a neighbor who grow hybrids. Huh.

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