Genetically Engineered Hybrid/Heirlooms Organic Gardening Propagating plants Seed Seed Saving

Garden Seed – Heirloom or Hybrid? Information to Help Make the Choice

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 for Gardens 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.

Here’s Why

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.

  • Open pollinated plants are pollinated by wind or insects. It’s seed will produce a new generation with the same qualities as the parent plant.
  • Heirlooms are open pollinated.
  • There are many other plants that are open pollinated, but NOT considered heirlooms.
  • In catalogs, look for OP – which stand for open pollinated.
  • Hybrids will be labeled as “hybrid” or “F1”

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.

  • 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.)

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 any hybrids I’ve grown, even if only by a small degree.

Acquiring Seed

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.

Final Thoughts

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 sometimes. 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.
Related Reading:

Study published by Donald Davis

Related TMG Posts:

Garden Seed Catalogs – They Sometimes Tell Only Part of the Story

Seed Companies – Selecting Them

Seed Saving – Why You’d Want to


  • As always, a tremendous article for my morning read. I concur with your thoughts on how heirlooms seem to grow slower and produce less than hybrids….at least that was my experience with tomatoes this summer. A hybrid roma tomato seeds I bought (from Johnny’s) produced a ton (great for canning!). My heirloom tomato plants (brandywine – also from Johnny’s) grew well, but produced only about 3-4 tomatoes per plant. But those heirlooms tasted better than any tomato I’ve ever had. So I guess it’s a balance.

    I still have some concerns about Johnny’s, as I see, at least in last year’s catalog, that not all of their offerings are non-GMO. I’m going to try Diane’s and Baker seeds next year….and I will read your expertise about saving seeds myself.

    (only 3 seasons of growing my own veggies — your advice is very valuable!)

    Thanks Theresa!

  • So happy for a new post. I keep searching for vegetables with the taste I remember from my childhood. Your articles are always well written.

  • Theresa

    This is a wonderful article, good winter reading, even though I knew most of what you said. I love facts and correct information, not just what feels good. The only seed I have saved is pumpkin and squash verities, as they are bigger seeds. The one thing I don’t know is: will pumpkin and squash cross pollinate? I thought I planted pumpkin along my house so the vines could stretch alongside the house and got one pumpkin and one squash (delicata) maybe the plants got switched before I planted them, I don’t know.

    I’m just looking at your links to seed companies and other information above. Thank You so much.


  • Glad you enjoyed the post Betty!

    Anne, I think you’ll enjoy ordering from Diane. ( She and her daughter are one of the last small seed companies. I love her stuff!

    And of course the Baker Creek Catalog itself is a treasure.

    Judeen, glad you’re continuing to search for veggies with the taste you remember from your childhood. Let us know when you find something especially noteworthy.

    Yes, Don pumpkins and squash will definitely cross pollinate.
    The general rule is to isolate each by 1/4 mile which is lot more space than most of us have.

  • Hi Theresa,
    Thank you for the info! Now I understand what’s going on. I purchased sweet jimmy nardello pepper seeds that grew into beautiful plants and produced crazy hot peppers! They must have crossed at the farm where the seed was produced. Your post was very helpful! I appreciate it.

  • I think that happens to more folks than we know about Susan.
    If those folks are growing a lot of seed to sell, they should be taking measures to protect those peppers from crossing. It can be done; just takes some time and effort. Like mesh bags over the blossoms – that kind of thing.
    Hope you were growing some sweet pepper that produced sweet!

  • By the way Susan, I thought what Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds ( told about the history of the Jimmy Nardello pepper was so interesting. So much so, it’s on my list to grow next year.

    The fact that it was noted by the Slow Food Organization tells us it’s an heirloom and it’s slow – but worth the wait!

    Here’s a cut-and-paste from their website:

    “Jimmy Nardello Italian Pepper

    This fine Italian pepper was grown each year by Giuseppe and Angella Nardiello, at their garden in the village of Ruoti, in Southern Italy.

    In 1887 they set sail with their one-year-old daughter Anna for a new life in the USA. When they reached these shores, they settled and gardened in Naugatuck, Connecticut, and grew this same pepper that was named for their fourth son Jimmy.

    This long, thin-skinned frying pepper dries easily and has such a rich flavor that this variety has been placed in “The Ark of Taste” by the Slow Food organization. Ripens a deep red, is very prolific, and does well in most areas.”

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