Heirloom gardening is the process of caring for plants that have been grown from seed and not altered in any way. This type of gardening emphasizes obtaining and caring for plants through natural, organic means. Most plants sold in commercial nurseries have experienced some form of genetic alteration and been cross-bred as a hybrid. In contrast, heirloom plants have been grown from seed or grafted directly from a parent plant that has a genetic lineage spanning hundreds of years.
Plants sold in most nurseries are typically pollinated by man. This may occur through bioengineering or some other form of intervention. A plant used in heirloom gardening reproduces through open pollinating. This means that fertilization, or pollination, occurs through the interaction of the plant with birds, insects, animals, and other elements occurring in nature. Certain types of fruit heirlooms may be continued through cutting and grafting.
The types of plants found in heirloom gardens are cultivars, which means that their seeds have been selected based on the appearance of the parent plant. Traits that make these particular plants desirable may include the flavor of the vegetable or fruit, the plant's resilience against disease, and the ease of pollination, among others. Their seeds are generally true to type. This trait ensures that an heirloom garden may be filled with multiple generations of plants descended from seeds of a first generation that imitates the parent.
Using seeds or plants that have been continued through multiple generations guarantees that the plants have not been genetically-engineered or pollinated. Most varieties of these heirloom gardening plants date back many centuries. Non-heirloom plants, often referred to as hybrids, have typically been created in a greenhouse, through genetic engineering and man-made pollination, for sale in retail stores. Most fruit and vegetables available in local supermarkets have been genetically-altered.
This type of garden usually contains multiple varieties of one crop. Modern agricultural practices specialize in monoculture, which is the mass production of one type of crop on a large farm. These single varieties are often selected for their hardiness and disease-resistance. Farmers who plant large acres of a single crop to sell to commercial distribution grocers commonly wish to guarantee that their single crop investment will generate enough income to sustain their operations.
Heirloom gardening may also include organic methods of fertilization and pest control. Gardeners may wish to use homemade compost to fertilize and protect their plants from disease. They may also use home remedies to treat insect damage, such as beneficial nematodes and sprays made of dish soap and baking soda.