There is a lot of beauty in food, especially in the heirloom (aka heritage) department. These days we expect carrots to be orange, tomatoes to be red and bananas and corn to be yellow. But once upon a time it was normal for all of these to be most colours of the rainbow. Due to the industrialisation of food, crops are no longer chosen based on their taste, nutritious qualities and ability to suit local conditions. They are now selected and grown based on how well they can travel vast distances and how good they look for the supermarket shelves.
This chart is a bit of a wake up call as to how the mainstream food system determines the food we are exposed to at the local supermarket.
Did you know that the carrot used to mostly be purple and that the orange carrot is relatively new thing which was cultivated around 400 years ago. You can learn more, so much more, through the UK’s Carrot museum. Image from here.
Without trying very hard at all, we mostly source heirloom seeds through our local networks, our own seed saving and through businesses like The Diggers Club, Phoenix Seeds and Southern Harvest. Initially our key attraction to heirloom is the fact that you get soooo much more diversity, interesting tastes and really strange/fun looking crops. But the more we grow them, the more we’re addicted to the fact they taste so much better than non heirloom varieties and we also love being part of preserving age-old plant varieties.
So what exactly does heirloom mean? “Heirlooms come from seed that has been handed down for generations in a particular region or area, hand-selected by gardeners for a special trait. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re non-hybrid and pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. How experts define heirlooms can vary, but typically they are at least 50 years old, and often are pre-WWII varieties. In addition, they tend to remain stable in their characteristics from one year to the next.”
Some people are very strict on ensuring their heirloom seeds are pre-WWII, this is because a lot of the left-over chemicals used for warfare were directed into conventional agriculture as fertilisers and pesticides – forever altering our food scape. Other people aren’t so strict about this timeline, but it’s something to be aware of.
Baby blue pop corn which we’ve recently harvest from our own garden. We were gifted this seed from a friend last year and simply couldn’t resist it. We’re in the process of waiting for it to dry out properly so we can make blue pop corn with it. Apparently this seed was originally sourced from The Lost Seed, however last time I checked it was no longer in stock. I passed on some seed to the Southern Harvest mob in Tasmania who will be growing it up for selling.
Purple broccoli, image from here
Potato heaven, image form here
Rainbow beetroots, image from here
Are there any downsides to growing heirlooms? They are more irregular in that you can get a mixed bag of shapes and sizes which is hard to market to the supermarket who are looking for ‘perfect looking’ foods only. Because of these irregularities it can also be more challenging to design efficient harvesting and processing systems. But really, these are the concerns of the large-scale, monoculture focused farmers. Small-hold family farmers don’t have these same problems to the same degree, but there is so much politics wrapped up in this discussion which I’ll leave for another day.
Tomatoes, image from here
Romanesco broccoli, spirals within spirals within spirals, image from here
Glass gem corn, image from here
If you’re wondering how to actually get started in growing your own food and save seed, you can join us this November for our Real Skills for Growing Food workshop – it’s going to be a very hands-on, jam packed weekend!
- The Diggers Club sell seeds but also have lots of info about all things heirloom
- The Seed Savers, Byron Bay, Australia
- Vandana Shiva talks seed saving
- The Seed Savers Handbook
*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.