by Dave Ledoux
Most gardeners just buy their seeds willy-nilly at the big box stores. But you and I are different, aren’t we?
I want to let you in on a little secret ... the world is filled with incredibly unique plants and vegetables. Most gardeners will never know about them. They’re called heirlooms.
Imagine taking a bite out of the most delicious tomato you have ever tasted. Not a cardboard, flavorless, store-bought "Stepford" tomato ... no, something unique that has been growing the same way since before the automobile was invented. You can grow flowers and vegetables that have been unchanged for decades or a centuries ... if you know the right people.
As a gardener, you take tremendous pride in growing your flowers and veggies and herbs. Why not grow something that your friends and family will be truly amazed by?
Before I share with you my list of heirloom seed companies, let me give you a couple of quick tips when it comes to growing open-pollinated cultivars that haven’t been tampered with by human hands or genetically modified:
Pioneers May Have Had Skinny Kids
The first time you grow a couple of heirloom tomatoes in your garden you are going to appreciate what the early settlers went through. Some of your plants will have a lot less fruit than you’re used to if you’ve been growing more modern, hybrid varieties. And the fruit will probably be a little less than perfect. In fact, some of the tomatoes might look a little grotesque! But if you’re growing old vegetable heirlooms, be prepared for the big payoff ... the flavor. There is simply nothing like it. If you love cooking and eating, nothing can compare to preparing meals with flavorful heirloom vegetables.
The Blight Is Coming! The Blight Is Coming!
You may notice that some seasons diseases will damage or kill some of your plants ... often in unusual and nasty ways. It’s important to realize that modern plants have often been bred to be resistant to blights, infections, leaf diseases and certain insects. Hey, you’re a gardener, I know you can take it. Plant more than you think you need. Play the math. If all your heirlooms survive and thrive then you can make a bunch of friends by sharing the extra harvest.
Caution - It’s A Slippery Slope!
We started growing heirlooms a few summers ago with a single Gypsy Tomato. Last season we grew 23 varieties of tomatoes alone! I mean, come on ... I’m a good eater but a man’s got to know his limitations. This year I have nearly a dozen varieties of hot peppers growing. Because heirloom gardening is so rewarding, challenging, frustrating and delicious it can grow into a mild addiction ... you’ve been warned!
10 Great Heirloom Seed Companies
I put Baker Creek first because my wife and I call them “The Mothership”. We are fans, bordering on fanatics for their seeds. In the past 2 seasons we are growing or have grown: Golden Beets, Atomic Red Carrots, Yellow Amarillo Carrots, Purple Jalapeno Peppers, Chinese 5-Color Peppers, Trinidad Scorpion Peppers, American Ananas Melon, Rosita Eggplant, Ping Tung Eggplant, Gypsy Tomato, Bronze Beauty Lettuce, Lau’s Pointed Leaf Lettuce, Watercress Large Leaf Aqua, Red Malabar Spinach, Titan Sunflowers, Yellow Wonder Strawberries, Slo Bolt Cilantro, and Thai Roselle Hibiscus.
Remember that warning about the “slippery slope”? 🙂
This Ontario seed company has 9 dozen varieties of beans, tomatoes, herbs, flowers and edibles. They ship globally, so to my gardening friends in the US and UK, your money will go a lot farther!
My now-famous “radish” photo that my wife took and shared on social media is one of Terra’s Watermelon Radishes (this particular one was picked after its prime). We are growing their Lemon Cucumber, Yellow Scallop Summer Squash, Golden Zucchini, and their fabulous OSU Blue Tomato.
Terroir Seeds is located in sunny Chino Valley, Arizona. I first met Stephen Scott when I interviewed him for my gardening podcast. Stephen and Cindy have a tremendous story and a deep love for native plants, heirlooms and the soil.
This year we are growing their Lacinato Kale and it’s delicious! We are battling the rabbits and chipmunk to see who gets to eat it. We shredded it, seasoned it with a curry vinaigrette and served it over cold quinoa to make a summer salad that was fabulous.
The west coast of Canada has a unique climate and beautiful gardens. Salt Spring Seeds is a certified organic heritage growing company on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia.
My wife and I planted (and are looking forward to eating) their Homemade Pickles Cucumber and their Berkeley Tie Dye Tomato. This year our pots of Taj Mahal Marigolds are spectacular!
This gem of a grower has over 1000 varieties of open-pollinated, non-GMO heritage seeds and literally has something for every gardener. This is a great catalog for flower gardeners and those into perennials. The company is in wine country in Northern California.
We are delighted with their San Marzano Roma Tomatoes. This season we are testing another brand new variety for our garden, the Omar’s Lebanese Tomato.
William Dam is from my neck of the woods to the west of Toronto, Ontario. While they don’t ship to the USA yet, they have links on their sites for suggestions for US customers.
We found their Disco Mix Marigolds through a stroke of luck at the Seeds of Diversity event in London, Ontario last winter. The marigolds are growing at the base of our sunflowers in partial shade and look fantastic!
Heritage Harvest specializes in hard to find and endangered varieties of heirlooms. They carry over 200 varieties of extremely rare tomatoes and dozens more of beans, herbs and edibles.
I am a big fan of their Marizol Gold Tomato. One of my specimens last year was nearly the size of a football! When I sliced it a single piece entirely covered the bread in the toasted tomato sandwich I was making. Absolutely an outstanding variety.
I’m giving you a bonus Canadian heirloom seed company that I really admire. They are from back east in Nova Scotia. They do NOT ship to the USA unfortunately, but they do ship internationally.
This year we are growing their Cylindria Beets, Chioggia Beets, Easter Egg Radishes, Bloomsdale Long-Standing Spinach, Green Jalapeno Peppers, Costata Romanesca Zucchini, Sasha Altai Tomato and Mortgage Lifter Tomato.
This tremendous company is entering it’s third decade shipping heirloom seeds to Canada, the USA and internationally to countries that don’t require a phytosanitary importing certificate.
We enjoy growing their Bull's Blood Red Beets, Cosmic Purple Carrots, Florence Fennel, Napoleon Sweet Peppers, Delice de la Table Melon, Kellogg's Breakfast Tomato, Persimmon Tomato, Isis Candy Cherry Tomato, and Boxcar Willie Tomato.
I recently met the owner of San Diego Seed Company and got the privilege to interview her. Brijette Romstedt is extremely knowledgeable about Earth-friendly, sustainable agriculture and safe seed saving methods. It was a delight to meet her and we are looking forward to ordering some of her seeds for next season.
My father-in-law grows colorful Burgundy Amaranth, which they also carry, and it performs well in our cooler climate.
There you go, 50 varieties of edibles and flowers from 10 different heirloom seed companies. I’m sure you’d agree that even the most experienced gardener will find endless challenge and amazing rewards from growing heirlooms.
The need to sustain and preserve the rare and hard to find varieties of seeds is vitally important. Genetic diversity is essential for future generations of gardeners.
Reach out to the seed companies I listed above. All of them are approachable, helpful, and have loads of great resources for you to help you with your growing.
- Dave Ledoux
Other Links: Back To My Garden: A conversation with Dave Ledoux and me (Rochelle Greayer) recorded a few weeks before the launch of Pith and Vigor! Listen in or download the entire transcript.