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What does "open pollinated" and "heirloom" mean?

Bryon Pike genetic diversity heirloom open pollinated

There's more to deciding what to grow in your garden this year than pretty pictures in a seed catalog!

heirloom pea seedIt's been said that the seeds we plant reflect the values of the people that grew them and the places where they were grown. This is obvious when considering run of the mill, bland grocery store produce varieties, bred for chemical factory farming, shipping and shelf life, vs. flavor, beauty, nutrition and hardiness.

But there's even more to it than that. It's important for 21st Century gardeners to understand how things were done long before factory farms and genetically engineered seeds.

  • Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms, as in our seeds, resulting in more genetically diverse plants.

    This causes more variation within plant populations, allowing them to adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year. We see this in our seeds, watching plants adapt year by year to the high altitude conditions here in the San Luis Valley.

  • An heirloom variety is an open pollinated variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the multi-generational sharing of traditions, recipes, music, etc. 

    Some of our heirloom varieties originate with Native Americans, e.g. Hopi corn and beans, long before Columbus' arrival. Others are native to the Old West, grown here as the first railroads were pushing across the continent. In many cases the stories of these plants are as rich and interesting as their produce!

  • Hybridization can occur naturally through random crosses, but commercial hybridized seed is deliberately created to for a desired trait.

    irst generation hybrids tend to grow better and produce higher yields, however, beyond the first generation, they're considerably less vigorous, so gardeners who plant hybrids must purchase new seed every year.

Commercial hybrids have their benefits, but open-pollinated varieties conserve genetic diversity in the face of dwindling agricultural biodiversity. With our heirloom seeds, along with genetic diversity, comes depth of flavor, colors, shapes and adaptability to challenging gardening conditions.

Focusing on heirloom varieties creates a historical connection to gardening and food production, building a more sustainable future by carrying on our garden heritage. By choosing pesticide free open-pollinated heirloom seeds, you're helping conserve biodiversity and contributing to and participating in the stories behind the seeds you grow.


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