Not too long ago, out good friend John Coykendall was featured in a documentary on Louisiana Public Broadcasting. John was recognized for the terrific work he does as an heirloom seed saver.

What John does is so noble and important to the communities in which he saves and redistributes his seeds, some for nearly extinct varieties of plants and vegetables. In fact, some of John’s work has reached Open Spigot Farms. Many of the plants around our farm owe themselves to him.

John’s achievements got us thinking. How many people really know about heirloom seeds? Sure, you may have heard of them, but do you really know what they are? More importantly, why are they so important?

What is an Heirloom Plant?

An heirloom plant is one whose seeds have been open-pollinated and whose traits have been naturally passed down for multiple generations. Although there is no specific guideline, many gardeners constitute an heirloom seed as one that is 50 years or older.

This is the complete opposite of most hybrid plants or those that are genetically modified – commonly known as GMO. Whereas heirloom seeds grow naturally and allow nature to steer the course of their growth and traits, GMO and hybrid plants are engineered by man. These types of plants are grown to go to market as quickly as possible. Therefore, the strategy behind them is to make the GMO as physically appealing as possible, even if it is at the expense of other factors.

Flowers may have a beautiful bloom but they lack fragrance. Herbs may be nice and green but they lack potency. Vegetables may look big and juicy but they lack flavor.

Not so with heirloom plants. The process is not rushed, allowing the seed to grow into and gardeners can naturally select the best year after year. What heirloom seeds are today is the result of caring for and selecting the juiciest, hardiest, healthiest and best-tasting plants, vegetables and herbs.

So why are they important?

Seed saving allows for exciting natural growth. GMO and hybrid plants grow the same exact variety, because that is what the market wants. Heirloom seeds can grow into a diverse range of color, shape, size and, of course, taste. Heirloom planting is the key to discovering new kinds and variations of the plants and vegetables you know and love.

It is also a way to encourage organically grown crops. As you know, Randall Beans has received USDA organic certification, so we take organic growing very seriously and hold it close to our hearts. Heirloom growing is usually done in smaller, local gardens – another reason heirloom crops rarely make it into stores. This allows for the small-scale gardeners who grow them to avoid harmful chemicals and other additives.

Most importantly to people like John and smaller-scale growers, heirloom growing allows for the passing down of stories and crops from generation to generation. Heirloom seed saving is a great way to bring families together and create traditions. Just think of how inspiring and cool it would be to be able to plant the same seeds your grandfather planted when he was young.

Want to get in on heirloom seed planting? It has become more popular in recent years, so finding seeds has become increasingly easy! You can check out places like seedsavers.org, heirloomseeds.com or check with you local farmer’s market.

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