Heirloom vs. Organic...what does it all mean?

This morning I am taking a family member to a medical appointment, so this is a "re-run" of an earlier blog...one of my favorites, that took some research.  If you already read it, I'll have something new Friday.  Otherwise, enjoy and be sure to comment if you have any questions!

Heirloom vs. Organic...what does it all mean?

A Really, Really Basic Primer

As an organic veggie gardener, for the last few years I have jumped on the "heirloom" bandwagon.  Here's the thing...it is confusing.  REALLY confusing!  There are organic seeds which are hybrid but not heirloom, nonorganic heirloom, organic hybrids, nonorganic hybrid, open pollinated...oh my!!!!

So I did a little research, and wanted to put together a primer of sorts with a few terms, boiled down to simple and reasonable definitions for simple and reasonable people (like me!).  The fact is, there are several definitions, so these are the sort of "consensus" definitions:

Open Pollinated

The basic principle of open pollination is simple...if you grow a seed, gather the seeds from the mature fruit or vegetable and replant them, you will grow exactly the same fruit or vegetable the following year.  Brandywine tomatoes are a great example of an open pollinated plant.  Sounds simple, right?  It is--except for bees.  They like to complicate things by buzzing around and cross pollinating and making new varieties!  Ah, well.  Unfortunately there are also man-made plants which do not open pollinate, because their seeds are sterile (see hybrid).


Heirloom fruits and vegetables generally meet 3 criteria:
  1. They are old.  Age varies by definition, but one generally agreed-upon definition is that the breed is older than 1951.  Some are ancient, and no one is quite sure when they came about.  Spelt is a good example of an "old" grain, it is older than wheat!
  2. They are open-pollinated.
  3. They have pleasing taste and texture...kind of like those great-tasting veggies and fruits grandma ate!


 Hybrids are generally bred for a particular quality by a nursery or individual.  Qualities may include size, disease resistance, color, production quality or quantity, or taste.  Often the seeds are "sterile," that is, they will not germinate, because they are mutations.


Not chemically treated in any way--soil or leaves.  Most states have an organic certification process which is quite rigorous and expensive.  (Having worked on an organic raw dairy farm, I was quite aware of the process, but I digress!)

Hope that helps!  Please comment back if you have any questions.  Are there any other terms you are confused about?