There seems to be a lot of inaccurate information around on heirlooms and hybrids. Articles on both seem to be filled with personal feelings rather than actual facts that might help you decide which of the two is the best seed for your garden.
You don’t have to be a scientist. But you do need to become familiar with some terms and facts that will make it a lot easier for you to know if what is being said is true, false, or a half truth.
Is a Hybrid Seed Genetically Modified? (NO!)
I’ve come across articles so slanted towards heirlooms they even imply that hybrids are GMOs (or genetically modified). They most definitely are NOT. As a matter of fact, you can put your mind at rest immediately. Even if a garden seed company doesn’t state that they don’t sell genetically modified seed, rest assured THEY DO NOT.
GM seed (which is a genetically modified organism or GMO) is only available to commercial growers. Companies like Monsanto who produce the seed have commercial growers sign contracts that they will not save seed or replant seed. Growers have to buy the seed again the following year if they want to grow that crop.
Although GMO vegetable cultivars include sweet corn and squash, you won’t find them in a seed catalog for home gardeners. (You can however find the commercially grown GMO corn and squash in the grocery store.)
What’s the Difference in a Hybrid and GMO?
Hybrid – Probably as long as mankind has been gardening he has crossed the pollen of one variety of vegetable or fruit with another to get an offspring with certain desired characteristics. The plant resulting from that cross-pollination is called a hybrid and usually produces a plant with the strongest traits of the parents.
Nature also creates hybrids when two varieties of a vegetable or fruit are cross pollinated via the wind or insects.
It’s a totally natural process that can occur with members of the same plant species.
For example: Peppers cross very readily. If you have large red sweet peppers and hot peppers in your garden, they could easily cross pollinate. If you save seed from your variety of sweet peppers, next year it’s possible they could end up producing large red sweet peppers with some heat to them.
GMOs – Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have had their DNA artificially altered in a laboratory. Technology is used to insert genes from an animal, plant, virus, or bacteria into a different organism (most often a plant).
They are NOT found in nature.
Why Most Vegetables in the Grocery Store are Hybrids
Commercial growers like hybrids because of the traits for which they’ve been bred. Traits can include higher yields, fruits that are uniform in size, earlier ripening of fruit, fruits that hold well when shipped, tolerance of cold, heat, or drought and/or disease resistance. Because of these desired traits, most of the vegetables you see in the grocery store are hybrids.
Unfortunately, taste is not always a consideration with breeders when these hybrids are produced.
Hybrids are Popular with Home Gardeners
In spite of that, hybrids have been available to home gardeners for over 50 years and have become very popular. So much so that the gardeners who buy their seedlings rather than starting with seed, find very limited varieties of a vegetable at the nursery, farm store, or plant stand.
Resulting Seed from a Hybrid is Not Dependable
One of the biggest disadvantages of growing hybrids is that seed from those fruits will not produce a new generation with the same qualities. More often than not you’ll get plants that are something like one of the parents used to create the hybrid.
Depending on the quantity of food you grow, buying the hybrid seed again every year could be a costly part of growing.
Control the Food. Control the World.
An article on the Nation of Change web site in 2013 notes that 10 big corporations control the world’s seed supply. Together they own more than 75% of all seeds planted on earth. (Possibly the figure is higher by now.)
If you’ve been around long enough to know how scary this is, the above fact is reason enough to make sure you grow at least some varieties that are open pollinated. Then, you can save your seed and get plants that are like the parent plant. Even if seed becomes scarce or unobtainable, you’ll have food to eat because you have seed.
It’s also a good reason to support small growers who grow most of the seed they sell. Or at least, do not lend support to big corporations like Monsanto whose desire is to control our food supply. (See my post: Seed Companies – Selecting Them)
Hybrids Have Less Nutrients
Donald Davis, a scientist retired from the university of Texas, and his colleagues published a study in 2004 that is often referred to in articles discussing hybrids and/or open pollinated (including heirlooms) fruits and vegetables.
Davis compared existing data from the US. Department of Agriculture on vegetable nutrients in numerous garden crops from 1950 to 1999 and found declines of 5% to 40% or more in minerals, vitamins and protein.
Part of the decline in nutrients is attributed to modern agricultural practices and part to growing hybrids. Studies suggested to Davis that when the dominant reason for breeding a hybrid is higher yields, the resulting plants “don’t necessarily have the ability to make or uptake nutrients at the same, faster rate.”
In a study of the same crop for two consecutive years, large variations were found in nutrient levels. This shows that “environment plays an important role in the expression of mineral concentration”. In other words, nutrient levels can be increased by good soil and good growing conditions even though hybrid plants overall have lower nutrient levels.
How These Findings Might Influence What we Grow
I think we have to keep both of these findings in mind. For example: if we still want to grow a hybrid squash that produces lots and lots of squash and produces it very quickly, we will know in advance that it probably won’t have the ability to make or uptake nutrients at the same rate as it produces squash.
Since we now know that the “environment plays an important role in the expression of mineral concentration” as well, we can make every effort to grow the plant in soil of excellent quality. This will give it the best chance to produce a crop with higher nutritional value than it would produce in poor soil.
If our goal is for best nutrition, we may want to consider an heirloom or another open pollinated variety that won’t produce as quickly or abundantly, but has the potential to give us more nutrients than the hybrid.
What are Heirlooms?
Heirlooms, as their name implies, have been around a while. All heirlooms are open pollinated.
Seed You Can Save
Open pollinated plants are pollinated by wind or insects.
You’ll be able to save the seed and get the same kind of vegetable or fruit when the seeds are planted again.
The only catch is, if you’re growing more than the one variety of the same plant, there’s always the chance that they’ll share pollen via insects or wind (known as cross pollination). If that happens the seed won’t produce the new generation with the same qualities of the parent plant.
In my garden this happens more easily with vegetables like squash and cucumbers. It can happen with tomatoes too, but the chances are not as great. And I’ve had pretty good luck in saving seed and having tomatoes produce the next generation true to their parent plant.
Potential for More Nutrient Dense Produce
Heirlooms have the ability (as we noted in the Davis study previously), to take up more nutrients from the soil.
BUT, I think it common sense to say that heirlooms raised using poor agricultural practices will not result in produce with high nutritional value. But ones raised in soils that are replenished each year, have an active soil life (soil web), are high in organic matter and nutrients, will produce vegetables and fruits that are very nutritious.
Do Heirlooms Taste Better?
That’s what you usually hear. I can only tell you for sure what I’ve experienced.
I don’t grow a lot of hybrids. When I do they’re usually limited to tomatoes, squash and cucumbers.
- I’ve grown two hybrid cucumbers that I really like. One is Diva and the other is General Lee. I thought they had great taste. (My other cucumbers are not considered heirlooms but they are open-pollinated and old varieties that I wouldn’t think of not having. Their taste is excellent.) (And by the way, I’ve seen Diva listed as not being a hybrid, but I definitely think it is.)
- I grow several hybrid tomato varieties each year. I’ll usually try at least one heirloom. Heirlooms have not suited our tastes at all until this year. I hit the jack pot with Mortgage Lifter and Matt’s Wild Cherry.
As we all know, taste is very subjective. What one person thinks is delicious, another might not. With that qualification having been stated, I can say Bill and I thought the heirloom tomatoes had superior flavor to my hybrids, even if only by a small degree.
My guess is that before heirlooms became “the in thing”, they really were “heirlooms” that were passed down in a family or from one gardener to another in communities around the world.
Any vegetable seed (be it open pollinated or hybrid ) that is grown in a climate and environment similar to the one in your garden is very likely to do better for you than seed that has been grown in totally different conditions.
- The ideal situation is if you know someone close to you who grows an heirloom (or any open pollinated) variety of a certain fruit or vegetable that does well in your area. (You might try talking to growers at farmer’s markets in your area to get this information.)
You’d know right off the bat that you have a great chance with that particular heirloom if you can obtain seed from that person that has already “customized” it to your area.
- The next best thing would be to buy seed from seed suppliers that grow most of what they sell or buy most of their seed from growers in your region. Once you locate those suppliers close to you, you can call and ask them if the seed you’re interested in comes from your region.
Creating Your Own Heirloom
If you’ve heard of a variety that does well in your area and you can’t obtain it from a grower in your region, you can still grow it and create an heirloom perfectly suited for your garden. It’ll just take time (years) and patience.
Always cull out plants that are not performing the best. Save seed only from the fruit of the plants that have the characteristics you want to preserve and carry forward. For diversity’s sake, save fruit from 3 or 4 plants.
It’s totally possible to eventually end up with a customized variety that will resist disease and pests and perform wonderfully in your garden even in adverse conditions.
Gaining Nutrients – Sacrificing Fast Growth
Because heirlooms grow more slowly and produce fruit at a slower rate than hybrids, they are able to take up more nutrients.
Be aware of their slow growth so you won’t be disappointed.
- Most heirloom tomatoes in particular are slow to produce fruit and don’t produce as much fruit as hybrids.
- My open pollinated/heirloom yellow crook neck squash are much slower at producing than some of the hybrids. But I feel the nutrient density is worth it.
- I have not noticed any slowness in open pollinated cucumbers. I’ll pay more attention next year.
With “organic” becoming more and more popular, growers will not always be committed to quality in the organic fruits and vegetables they grow for market. Although certified organic is still your best bet in the market place, it’s not a guarantee for quality and high nutrient value.
If you’ve worked with nature to improve your soil, you’re going to get the best quality food you can get from your own garden whether you decide on open pollinated varieties or hybrids.
Let the facts in this post and nature’s principle of diversity be your guide.
I choose to grow mostly open pollinated varieties whether they’re heirlooms or just good “old” dependable varieties. I’ll still keep a couple of hybrids in the mix. But knowing that they don’t have all the nutrients that I could get with an open pollinated variety makes them less appealing to me.
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