What Are Heirloom Seeds & Why Are They More Sustainable? Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company #whatareheirloomseeds #benefitsofheirloomseeds #heirloomseedsmeaning #heirloomseedsdefinition #heirloomgardening #sustainablegardening #sustainablejungle
Image by Baker Creek Rare Seeds

What Are Heirloom Seeds & Why Are They More Sustainable?

Molly Willows

If you’re digging into the world of sustainable gardening, you’ve no-doubt come across the term “heirloom” when shopping for seeds.

But what are heirloom seeds?

The terms “heirloom seeds,” “hybrid seeds,” “organic seeds,” “GMO seeds” and “non-GMO seeds” are sown throughout debates about everything from the best tomatoes (we’re voting organic heirloom 100%) to the best seeds for mitigating our modern food systems’ ecological damage, inequality, and health crises.

Modern agriculture is responsible for the loss of 90% of our crop diversity, and is one of the biggest contributors to climate change.

So in terms of sustainable food systems, are heirloom seeds better?

Let’s make like a tree and leave the genetically engineered seeds behind to dig into the wonders of heirloom gardening.

1. What Are Heirloom Seeds?

What Are Heirloom Seeds & Why Are They More Sustainable? Image by Sustainable Jungle #whatareheirloomseeds #benefitsofheirloomseeds #heirloomseedsmeaning #heirloomseedsdefinition #heirloomgardening #sustainablegardening #sustainablejungle
Image by Sustainable Jungle

What does ‘heirloom seeds’ mean?

It refers to any heritage seed from a plant that was passed from one generation to the next and carefully grown and saved for features like its hardiness, adaptability, flavor, or productivity. 

The exact heirloom seeds definition is still up for considerable debate, but for most farmers a few simple guidelines apply. 

Some say a true heirloom vegetable has to be pre-World War II, and others say it has to be more than 100 years old. 

Regardless, one thing is widely agreed upon—heirloom seeds are as close to the “original” seed that we have, having been saved, grown, and maintained by farmers generation after generation. 

Though their characteristics may evolve naturally, they remain true to the original parent plant—AKA “true to seed”.

Most importantly, heirloom seeds are open pollinated—meaning that the wind, birds, bees, or other critters pollinate the plant, as opposed to farmers or scientists—and produce hardy seeds that can be saved and grown next season. 

Nowadays, there is a popular movement to revive heirlooms, not only for their connection to the past, but for their outstanding flavor and unique traits not to be found in standard commercial seeds.

Industrialized agriculture created a dependence for most farmers on commercial sources for farming inputs—including seeds, which are usually GMO and/or hybrid, providing poorer quality produce and ineffective seeds. 

Let’s dig deeper into how they compare.

Heirloom Vs GMO Seeds 

GMOs are genetically modified organisms that biotechnology was applied to for the creation of combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and virus genes that do not occur via conventional cross breeding methods or in nature.

GMO seeds aren’t technically available to the general public, but are common in the heavily monopolized world of “Big Ag” where commercial farmers are given little crop sovereignty. 

We say ‘technically’ because while the average backyard homesteader can’t buy them directly, the overuse and perpetuation of GMOs by giant money-grubbing organizations like Monsanto and Syngenta have led to the contamination of commercially available seeds through cross-pollination with GMO species.

In other words, “pollen drift” from your neighbor’s GMO corn field can result in the presence of GMO grain in your garden’s non-GMO corn crop. If you save those seeds and plant them next year, you may unknowingly be planting some dilution of a genetically modified crop.

Now consider that 90% of US farmland is filled with genetically modified crops.

What will this do for the world’s genetic plant diversity?

Though we don’t have enough data to say yet, it’s certain to be nothing good.

We also lack rigorous studies of health impacts associated with GMO crops (due in large part to Monstanto’s government lobbying), engineered traits like herbicide resistance have led to chemical-intensive monocultures that destroy biodiversity both on and off the farm.

So are heirloom seeds non-GMO?

Yes; Most horticulturalists would define heirloom seeds meaning any open-pollinated preserved seed since before 1945, which was the start of GMO-based agriculture industrialization.

Heirloom Vs Organic Seeds 

What about organic vs heirloom seeds?

Organic refers to an approach to growing plants and seeds. 

Putting aside debates for the credibility of the USDA Organic label, to earn it, crops must theoretically be raised and processed in accordance with (and inspected by) the USDA’s National Organic Program or a verified third-party auditor, which prohibits synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, GMOs, sewage sludge, and fresh manure.

Heirloom, meanwhile, has no governing body to designate the title. The harvest speaks for itself. 

Heirlooms, by nature, are open-pollinated, non-GMO, non-hybrid seeds, but to be designated organic heirloom, they must be certified organic for the way in which they’re grown. 

As a rule of thumb, all heirloom seeds can be grown organically (though may not be), but not all organic seeds are inherently heirloom.

Heirloom Vs Hybrid Seeds 

Hybrid is different from GMOs, since it’s simple cross breeding that can be done on the farm without lab-based genetic alteration. 

Hybrids are also different from heirloom seeds because the hybrid’s controlled cross-pollination produces hybrid seeds with desired traits, like uniformity, disease resistance, brighter color. 

Unlike heirlooms, the seed the hybrid plant produces will never grow “true to type.” This means the next generation will be less robust and more genetically variable.

2. What Are the Benefits Of Heirloom Seeds?

What Are Heirloom Seeds & Why Are They More Sustainable? Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company #whatareheirloomseeds #benefitsofheirloomseeds #heirloomseedsmeaning #heirloomseedsdefinition #heirloomgardening #sustainablegardening #sustainablejungle
Image by Baker Creek Rare Seeds

Saving and growing the timeless treasures that are heritage heirloom seeds is rewarding to both farmers and farmer’s market enthusiasts alike. 

There are a number of advantages to heirloom seeds:

Flavor, Fun, & Fortitude

Multi-colored corn kernels that look like glass beads, carrots that grow as tall as people, and others with stunning purple skins—this is a delightful and exciting world that awaits the gardener who delves into heirloom seeds.

Whether a long-time garden nerd or a newbie green thumb, unique beauty and unexpected, delicious flavors are common enough reasons to grow heirlooms. 

The perfect example is tomatoes, which are often dull, acidic, and poorly textured from the supermarket, whereas heirloom tomatoes provide a symphony of flavors, nutrients, shapes, colors, and bursting flavors. 

A number of studies suggest that heirloom varieties are more densely packed with nutrition than their GMO or hybrid counterparts, due to the way they grow and blossom. 

This makes them especially important considering the fruits and vegetables we eat today are far less nutritious than those our grandparents ate.


It’s not news that we need to radically reshape our food systems. 

For many, the fruitful growth and seed saving ability of an heirloom veggie or flower accompanies relief and pride at independence from big box grocery stores and their flavorless, nutrient-scarce GMO produce. 

Small farmers, self-sufficient homesteaders, and market-goers alike appreciate the sense of sovereignty and self-sufficiency that comes with unique heirlooms. 

Resilience Via Adaptability

Heirlooms inspire small-scale evolution through adaptation. As heirloom seeds acclimate to a grower’s certain growing conditions, they naturally develop resistance to local pests and diseases. 

Countless seasons over decades—or centuries— of natural pollination equips these seeds with the innate ability to thrive under diverse environmental conditions, which in turn bolsters the resilience of the ecosystem itself. 

Plus they’re pest-resistant, hardy (especially in their native environment), and perfect for ecological gardening methods like organic farming. 

Genetic Diversity 

As nature’s guardians of genetic diversity, each seed holds rich traits that heirlooms protect. 

Compare this to the destructive practice of monoculture, whereby 93% of seed varieties were already extinct by the year 1990, and you can appreciate why revitalizing the diversity of our gardens has never been more important to our planet, our food systems, and our biodiversity. 

The genetic diversity that heirlooms provide is crucial to the health of our ecosystems, since they support a vast range of pollinators (like bees), and other beneficial insects and organisms.

Think of them as seeds for generations—not just seeds for the convenience of today.

An Outdoor Museum 

Heirloom seeds hold significant agricultural legacy, and your garden is a living museum whose artifacts tell a story rich for the senses—and the planet’s wellbeing. 

Heirloom enthusiasts don’t seek to keep the world in an unrealistic time capsule; rather it’s where tradition and innovation intersect to develop new agricultural approaches that regenerate ecosystems, all the while harking back to traditional, older ways passed through generations. 

When we nurture and grow heirloom seeds, we become both stewards of history and harbingers of modern sustainability, as we bring the past and the future together in the presence of a germinating seed. 

3. How Are Heirloom Seeds Sustainable?

What Are Heirloom Seeds & Why Are They More Sustainable? Image by Non-GMO Project #whatareheirloomseeds #benefitsofheirloomseeds #heirloomseedsmeaning #heirloomseedsdefinition #heirloomgardening #sustainablegardening #sustainablejungle
Image by Non-GMO Project

Why grow heirloom varieties?

Many believe that the conservation of heirloom seeds is one of the brightest solutions to revitalizing soils, food security, disease resistance, genetic diversity, and better nutrition. 

In the 20th century alone, more than three quarters of food crop varieties disappeared worldwide. 

Due to the proliferation of industrial agriculture in just fifty years, farmers were sold a monoculture methodology of mechanizing farms to grow one crop abundantly at the expense of their livelihoods and the planet. 

All to support large biotech corporations with pockets far deeper than the soil. Nice. 

Today, we see the harrowing impacts of this approach to Big Food Cropping on our health, our environment, and our food security. 

The commercialization of agriculture resulted in a complete dependence of farmers on big corporations for all aspects of their farm, including seeds, which only further exacerbated our current global biodiversity emergency.

As we begin to embrace regenerative farming and organic farming on a larger scale globally, ensuring a varied and strong gene pool like those of heirlooms is incredibly important. 

The time to protect and celebrate heirlooms to sustain our planet and our species is now. 

Heirloom seed sustainability is essential to nurturing environmental harmony, healthy ecosystems, and biodiversity.

One of the most sustainable choices you can make is to grow heirloom seeds in your eco-friendly landscaping or garden. 

Not only are they well-suited to local conditions, this also means they often have natural resistance to disease and pests, and won’t require chemical-laden pesticides and fertilizers. 

When you choose heirloom seeds for your garden, you’re choosing a more ecologically balanced and healthy garden, AND you’re paying homage by helping to preserve ancient cultural seeds. 

The seeds can also be harvested and saved season to season, since they’re open pollinated by natural sources, as opposed to hybrid or GMO varieties. 

For many, heirloom gardening goes beyond seed-to-spoon.

It’s the cultivation of a timeless, resilient, and flourishing legacy. Every heirloom seed sown is a celebration of sustainable garden practices, cultural preservation, and biodiversity conservation

4. Where To Buy Heirloom Seeds

What Are Heirloom Seeds & Why Are They More Sustainable? Image by Sustainable Jungle #whatareheirloomseeds #benefitsofheirloomseeds #heirloomseedsmeaning #heirloomseedsdefinition #heirloomgardening #sustainablegardening #sustainablejungle
Image by Sustainable Jungle

Ready for some dazzling, technicolor produce and plants that shock the senses with wonder and awe while spiking your nutrient intake and supporting a rich history?

Any one of the following sustainable seed companies provides heirloom varieties that are anything but blasé. 

Plus, these companies also all pay royalties to any native cultures that preserved that particular seed throughout history, making these heirloom seeds ethically sourced.


As one of the first seed companies to sign the Safe Seed Pledge, which established their commitment to non-genetically-modified seed, Maine’s Fedco is one of the most respected worker/consumer-owned cooperatives specializing in gardening and farming supplies.

As original members of the back-to-the-land movement and now as a major supplier of seeds in the USA, the work Fedco achieves in terms of heirloom preservation, genetic diversity, food sovereignty, sustainability, and land regeneration is incredibly important. 

While not exclusively heirlooms are sold, Fedco offers countless catalogs of heirloom seed varieties—in addition to the rest of their largely organic and entirely non-GMO seed stock.

Baker Creek Rare Seeds

Ready to become a hardcore heirloom historical horticulturist? 

This highly reputed heirloom seed-only company provides 2,000 varieties of seeds for heirloom vegetables, flowers, and herbs. 

As the widest selection of heirloom varieties available in the U.S, Rare Seeds also offers one of the greatest selections of seeds from the 1800s. 

You can be sure that each and every seed harkens back to simpler times of seeds representing pure, fresh abundance and nutrition. 

True Leaf Market

Since 1974, True Leaf Market has served as a primary seed destination for everything heirloom, organic, and non GMO for both recreational gardeners and professional farmers alike. 

Today, the company manages to remain as one of the very few independently owned seed companies in the United States, due to the aforementioned mass consolidation of seed companies by giant agribusinesses over the last fifty-odd years. 

Along with a robust offering of organic, sustainable, heirloom, and hybrids, they also offer a variety of microgreens, grow kits, sprouts, and garden supplies. 

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Final Thoughts On What Are Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

Seeds literally burst with potential. 

In the words of environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, and iconic Indian scholar-feminist Vandana Shiva:

“Seed is not just the source of life. It is the very foundation of our being. Soil, not oil, holds the future for humanity.”

So let’s not further soil our rich history of variety and growth with GMOs and let’s future-proof with the sustainable magic of heritage heirloom seeds instead.

With over 30% of America’s plants already at risk of extinction (and of which 90% in the last century are already forever gone) the time is ripe to start safeguarding our heirloom varieties.

After all, the very survival of humankind and our planet depends on our symbiotic relationship with nature, where life is valued as the main currency—not Big Ag’s cash. 

Have a fellow green thumb equally passionate about ecojustice and sustainability? 

Send this heirloom gardening article their way, and help us keep blossoming a culture of happy heirloom horticulture!

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What Are Heirloom Seeds & Why Are They More Sustainable? Image by Sustainable Jungle #whatareheirloomseeds #benefitsofheirloomseeds #heirloomseedsmeaning #heirloomseedsdefinition #heirloomgardening #sustainablegardening #sustainablejungle
What Are Heirloom Seeds & Why Are They More Sustainable? Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company #whatareheirloomseeds #benefitsofheirloomseeds #heirloomseedsmeaning #heirloomseedsdefinition #heirloomgardening #sustainablegardening #sustainablejungle

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