It is time to buy your seeds, before the catalogs run out of their supply! Consider buying heirloom seeds, considered by environmentalists to be the seeds of life. Just what is an heirloom seed?
Vegetable varieties which predate the current seed production and food distribution systems we have in this country are called heirlooms. Many gardeners feel that an heirloom vegetable is one that has been grown for more than 100 years, but I think that a better cutoff point would be 1950. Immediately after World War II, agriculture and gardening in America underwent enormous changes, and the current system was born in that period. The widespread adoption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the development of hybrid vegetables, the completion of rural electrification, improvements in refrigeration and our interstate transportation system, suburban destruction of urban fringe market gardens: all these changes were part of a trend that resulted in the current national—rather than regional—character of our American mass culture and agriculture. This trend was born and developed in the decades on both sides of World War II.
Before our current period, vegetable seed companies were smaller and often grew their own seed, which was regionally adapted to the climate of the area in which the company was located. In fact, many seedsmen started out as market gardeners and simply moved into selling seed they had saved for their own use. As their businesses developed, they collected choice varieties from other gardeners—who had selected their own favorite strains—and by close attention maintained them as distinct varieties. Unlike modern vegetable introductions, all of which are deliberately developed for sale, these heirloom varieties were simply selected over generations according to the whims and preferences of individual gardeners. Thus, most are strongly adapted to a particular region of the country, and have an incredible range of qualities—in taste, texture, appearance, and disease or pest resistance—all of which were, for one reason or another, important to their backyard developers.
Of the thousands of regional heirlooms a relatively small number eventually become standards, and many of our modern hybrids owe part of their parentage to them. Some of these old standards are still available today, though the reselection and propagation of any variety subtly changes its nature over time. Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage and Bibb lettuce are two heirloom varieties that come to mind immediately.