It never ceases to amaze me when I hold a living embryo in my hand, tuck it into soil, and then see it peeking up to the light. Whether it be a tomato seedling with its pubescent like root hairs on the stem, bright and cheery cotyledons of green lettuce, or petite curls of onions...life bursting forth. This transformation never gets old after months of looking at the piles of snow blanketing your garden and you've had enough of scraping your car. You close your eyes and imagine that tropical July dawn savoring a few dripping Sun Gold tomatoes out in the garden. From a tiny seed comes a plethora of bountiful goodness. Just. One. Seed.
But where will this seed come from? There are many options out there. Hybrid, open pollinated (OP), heirloom, and organic.
With an entire growing season ahead of you, the seed quality matters. All seed companies are not equal. The term heirloom has been all the rage lately. What is an heirloom seed? The technical definition is a seed that has been passed down for 50 years. If you plant a seed you save from an heirloom tomato, you will get the you will get the same type tomato from that seed. Not the case with a hybrid seed (F1). Seed companies who have an intimate relationship with their plants carefully manage the population of that crop. Seed farmers eliminate weak performers from the population. Plants that are more susceptible to disease are taken out. If farmers see a fruit that may have crossed with another plant, that is taken out. One of the greatest advantages of heirlooms in my opinion is the flavor. Heirlooms in the home garden are usually eaten within a day or two of being picked. These plants aren't bred to be able to withstand shipping. Flavor is king here. In heirlooms you find an endless array of flavors to delight your palette. In tomatoes you'll find everything from tart and tangy to tropical and sweet. There are also uniquely flavored tomatoes with an earthy smoky flavor. Some of these come from farmers who notice an oddity in their crop and love the flavor. They then start saving the seeds from this one tomato and isolate it until they get 100% of the same tomato.
Another exciting advantage of heirlooms are the color and shape diversity. Purple sugar snap peas, orange egg plants, and green and yellow striped tomatoes. These are not the veggies you see in the grocery store. Six years ago I discovered heirlooms, and I wish I could triple my garden space. I want to try them all!!
A final advantage of heirlooms I'll mention is the fun of saving your own seeds. Seeing seeds sprout that came from your own backyard is even more rewarding. I have been saving a certain sweet pepper for three years now. I selects seeds from peppers that had a curvy shape. The plant, the next year, gave me more peppers that had a wild shape.
Another advantage to saving your own is that the seeds will be adapted to the micro climate of your little piece of earth. The more years you save, the better adapted it will become. You can develop your own strain. You may even develop a new variety! Many vegetables are easy to save.
In this entry I focused mostly on heirlooms. See future entries on seed company selection, starting seeds, why to choose organic seeds, and seed saving how to.