The Tradition of Heirloom Seeds

The cover of an 1896 catalog from the Robert Buist Co. in Philadelphia

With Rich Giordano


If you travel back in time to 175 years ago, chances are you are a farmer.
Your kids are going to grow up to be … a farmer. And so on. 

Those beans you used to eat at your Aunt Tilly’s that were your favorite?
Well, now that you’re getting married and starting your own farm,
here are some seeds from Aunt Tilly as a wedding gift.
Go grow them.
Continue the tradition with your own children.
These are your heirlooms.


Title Image: Butterfield Farm in Pompey, New York by Sanford Thayer, oil on canvas, the Onondaga Historical Association
 Butterfield Farm in Pompey, New York by Sanford Thayer, oil on canvas, the Onondaga Historical Association

The Growing Season

Back in the early to mid-1800s, farming was a way of life whether you had acres and acres of land or just enough to have a garden to keep your family fed. Seeds were harvested and handed down year after year, but only from those veggies or fruits or grains that were the best of the best performers of the season. They tasted the best. Stayed fresh longer. Withstood pests better. Grew so plentiful they would increase the
harvest and survive the flood or drought.
 The cover of an 1896 catalog from the Robert Buist Co. in Philadelphia
The cover of an 1896 catalog from the Robert Buist Co. in Philadelphia

A few generations later, people started to leave the family farm to work at the factories, and within one generation, a vast amount of farming knowledge all but disappeared. People were not teaching new generations how to save seeds or graft plants, or plant those seeds that fed their families for decades. Those skills that were common to a 10-year-old were lost as fewer people were tending the gardens and the fields as the Industrial Revolution came along.

Seed-keeping became part of commercial farming businesses. Many companies promoted the “fresh” or good taste qualities of a particular corn or bean with general instructions on how to grow them, but the taste of Aunt Tilly’s beans was gone, and often, the nutritional values decreased as a result.

The Immigrant Influence

One wave of immigration into the U.S. occurred from 1815 to 1865 and mostly came from Northern and Western Europe. While most came to improve their economic status, the Irish came in large numbers to escape the massive famine taking place back home. In the 1840s, almost half of America’s immigrants were from Ireland.
Prior to the 1892 opening of Ellis Island, individual states regulated their own immigration policies. Often members from different countries or regions would settle into areas where they could work and support each other and partake of their traditions with one another. In the 19th century, a number of German immigrants landed in the Midwest to buy farms and tended to congregate in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Asian immigrants heard of the discovery of gold in California and over 25,000 Chinese had migrated by the early 1850s. It is estimated that between 1880 and 1920, over 20 million immigrants arrived in the U.S.
That is a lot of mouths to feed. These people were trying to find their way in a strange land. They all longed for the comforts of home. For many, nothing tasted better or gave them more comfort than food that grew from the seeds brought here from the “old country.” They were sewn into clothing and stuffed into every available inch of space within their meager possessions so that they would not be discovered or taken.

One Immigrant’s Seed Story

Hungarian heirloom peppers brought to Beaver Dam, WI, in 1912 by the Joe Hussli family. Florence Hussli recommends adding crisp sliced rings to a cheese and bologna sandwich, or using for stuffed peppers. Fruits are mildly hot when seeded. seedsavers.org
Hungarian heirloom peppers brought to Beaver Dam, WI, in 1912 by the Joe Hussli family. Florence Hussli recommends adding crisp sliced rings to a cheese and bologna sandwich or using for stuffed peppers. Fruits are mildly hot when seeded. seedsavers.org

According to an older gentleman who was discussing gardening with Rich Giordano while he was working at Old Sturbridge Village, the taste of something from home made him feel hopeful and comfortable in his new country. His family emigrated from a small village in Italy to the U.S. before World War I. Before they left, they wanted to bring some seeds from some of their favorite foods. Understanding this could be a tricky thing to do, they sewed the seeds into the hems of their clothes. There were a few different vegetables, but his favorite were the big, black Catalonia beans brought over from Italy in the hem of his coat.

The family established their home garden with these seeds and passed them down before having the chance to go back after the war and visit the town where he grew up. When they arrived and celebrated with their extended family, they talked about how they brought the tastes of home to their new country. To their surprise, the Catalonia beans were no longer growing in the town due to the devastation caused by the chemical warfare and many fires that took their toll on the land. The gentleman told them he had some beans he would bring back with him on his next visit. Now they are once again growing in his hometown.

From the Manufactured Back to the Natural

GMOs, or “Genetically Modified Organisms,” is a term that applies to the “corporate selective breeding” of a variety of living things done through genetic engineering in a lab, from animals to medicines to food during the 20th century. While the results of this practice have been both good and bad, farming corporations capitalized on what they considered the best traits of plants to improve a food’s preservation qualities to make it across the country to feed the masses. The use of GMOs derived by gene splicing has led to many people taking a second look at food that is not mass-produced – by looking for “natural” food, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, non-gmo crops, “no preservatives added” bread, “all-natural” peanut butter, and more.
As farming has continued to grow as a corporation-owned or contracted endeavor, the small farm owner and home-garden enthusiast have brought back the “heirloom” seed method of collecting and are growing food that is adapted to the soils and weather patterns of their particular part of the country.
While you may not be able to grow some foods where you live, by doing some heavy networking and lots of learning about what makes a good seed or graft or plant you can start your own collection of heirloom seeds.

Generational Seeds

A plate full of Rich Giordano’s beans, seeds he shares and trades with students, friends, and family
A plate full of Rich Giordano’s beans, seeds he shares and trades with students, friends, and family

Thanks to the farmers who continued to save and select seeds across generations, the ability to buy and consume good food has gained a huge following. But Rich Giordano, a gardener with no bounds, almost did not get the chance to follow what turned into his life’s passion:

“My grandfather was a hard man who worked hard. He worked about two and a half acres by hand and he bred his own vegetables. He had varieties no one else in the world had. When we went over for Sunday dinners, he would stand up and loudly say, ‘You like that corn? I grew that corn!’ But I was a teenager and I would be thinking, ‘Shut-up old man!’ I was just 15 when he died. The family took his lifetime of goods and tools and seeds and put it all into the greenhouse. It was a treasure trove that nobody took.
“Five years later, I started getting into gardening. I started talking to my cousins who lived next door to my grandfather and asked about what he did. ‘We saved all his seeds and put them in the greenhouse!’ They were all dead. The heat, cold, and moisture from those years in that contained space killed all the seeds.
“He had nobody who took his gardening expertise and used it into the future. I took all the tools that were left and still use them today. But it would have been so cool to have had his seeds.
“Today I put effort into handing out my seeds with one condition: that if they like what they have, they hand out seeds to other people, too. I teach people how to grow them and how to save seeds year after year. That way they will always be around in some form or variation.
“Now when I have friends over for dinner, I stand up and say, ‘You like this corn? I grew this corn!,’ and they keep coming back for more.

Collecting Heirloom Seeds

Every seed has a story – and the ‘Never Will’ tomato has a great one! In 1983, grower Tom Wagner first listed this tomato in the Tater Mater Seeds catalog with the following description: “I invite folks who like fried green tomatoes to experiment with these. In jest, give a neighbor a plant or a fruit and watch them go crazy waiting for it to ripen – it never will.” Decades later, that's still the case! “I bred that tomato as a joke, you know," Tom reflected in 2018. "I’ve had a lot of these tomatoes [over the years], but not once did the fruit ripen!” photo and story: seedsavers.org
Every seed has a story – and the ‘Never Will’ tomato has a great one! In 1983, grower Tom Wagner first listed this tomato in the Tater Mater Seeds catalog with the following description: “I invite folks who like fried green tomatoes to experiment with these. In jest, give a neighbor a plant or a fruit and watch them go crazy waiting for it to ripen – it never will.”
Decades later, that’s still the case! “I bred that tomato as a joke, you know,” Tom reflected in 2018. “I’ve had a lot of these tomatoes [over the years], but not once did the fruit ripen!” photo and story: seedsavers.org
Now having lived his passion for many years, Rich gives seed-saving talks, works on gardens for clients, and shares his seeds with everyone in order to pass on his heritage. Online organizations like seedsavers.org give you access to information from around the world. So, how do you begin your own collection?
– Reach out to your local garden shop, feed store, grange, or garden club to soak up their experience to apply what you feel would work to your own space. Better yet, take a class from an area organization such as agricultural schools or a living history museum.
– Pre-plan the size of your garden. Consider what you can handle from starting your seeds to the harvest and preservation of your foods.
– Have your soil analyzed so you know what kind you are working with in order to buy the best seeds and plants.
– Buy local. Getting seeds or plants from local farmers will help you grow what already works in the neighborhood.

Learn About Seeds

This is critical to how successful your collection will be. Different plants require different pollination, different care and watering schedules, and different ways to collect their seeds.

Ever seen a carrot seed? Typically, you plant the seed, the greens sprout, and photosynthesize to make energy. The energy swells the root of the carrot and then you eat it. If you don’t eat it, you keep the root knowing it is a storage holder for starch that the plant can live on through the winter. In the spring, the starch converts to sugar and spikes and produces a flower that will produce the seed. It takes two years to go from seed to seed.
Each seed has its own superpower. Saving them from harvest to harvest, you continue the breed while enjoying the taste. One method of seed collecting does not work for all, and the more you know, the better your collection, and garden, will be.