Hybrid vs Heirloom Garden Seeds
by staff writer
Planting a garden from seeds is the most economical way to start growing
vegetables and herbs, and it has the added advantage of providing you with many
more options than if you use nursery plants. For homesteaders, the question is
usually not whether to plant from seed, but which kind of garden seeds to use.
The most widely available garden seeds are hybrids, which have been artificially
cross-pollinated to produce plants that display characteristics of two different
plant varieties. For example, hybrid tomato seeds may have been created by
mixing a vigorous, but low-yielding plant with a fragile plant that produces
Heirloom seeds, on the other hand, were developed through open pollination. In
most cases, seeds from the best plants -- or plants that displayed unique
characteristics -- were held back and replanted. New varieties were developed
slowly over time through artificial selection. Heirloom varieties generally date
back to 1950 or earlier; some are believed to have existed since ancient times.
Many seed companies advertise their seeds as "non-GM", but whether or not to buy
genetically modified (GM or GMO) seeds is a non-issue for the hobbyist gardener.
These controversial seeds are sold only in bulk to commercial farmers. Although
it's technically possible that purchased seeds could have been produced when a
normal plant was pollinated by a GM plant, it's very unlikely. In any case,
"non-GM" labels don't certify that this hasn't occurred -- only that the seed
producer isn't reselling GM seeds to individuals.
Pros and Cons of Using Heirloom Seeds
Heirloom vegetables are rapidly becoming more popular, and there are some good
arguments for using
heirloom seeds in your garden. Although more expensive than
hybrid seeds, there's no need to ever purchase more than a single packet of
heirloom seeds for each variety you want to grow. You can allow your plants to
fully mature and save back seeds for each year. Stored properly, seeds that you
harvest yourself will be viable for years to come. If you practice seed saving,
it's a good idea to hold back more seeds than you need each year. If inclement
weather or wild animals destroy your crop, you'll be glad to have the extra
seeds, and you can also trade seeds with other gardeners to diversify your
selection of fresh fruits and vegetables without spending a penny.
Another advantage of using heirloom vegetable seeds is the quality of your
produce. While heirloom vegetables tend to bruise more easily and can't be
stored fresh for long periods of time, they are far more diverse and flavorful
than hybrids. Russian heirloom tomatoes, like the Black Krim and Black Prince
varieties, make a richer, more flavorful tomato sauce than any hybrid available.
Lemon cucumbers, round Parisian carrots, purple potatoes and other unusual
varieties have unique -- and often better -- flavors than their high-yield
Of course, heirloom plants aren't perfect. The main drawbacks are relatively low
yield and unpredictability. You'll need a larger garden if you want to be able
to rely on it to produce all of your family's fruits and vegetables. Growing
zone information is also not always available for heirloom seeds, so there's a
chance that your plants won't produce at all in your climate. Ask around before
you sink a lot of cash into heirloom seeds; local gardeners may have experience
growing the varieties you're interested in.
Pros and Cons of Using Hybrid Seeds
Until you've established what heirloom varieties will grow best in the
conditions on your homestead, you may want to set aside a small area to grow
dependable hybrids. Unlike heirloom plants, hybrids are reliable and can be
counted on to deliver a heavy yield. In most cases, the vegetables you'll wind
up with will resemble the ones you see in a grocery store -- long orange
carrots, round or oval red tomatoes, dense heads of green broccoli. They'll
taste a bit better because they're fresh, but they won't be truly unique.
Technically, you can save the seeds from hybrid plants, but it's hard to say
what you'll get. Sometimes the seed you save won't grow at all. More often,
you'll wind up with inferior plants. Hybrid tomato plants from commercial plant
nurseries usually produce seed that grows high-yield cherry tomatoes. Many
gardeners are surprised when volunteer cherry tomato plants start showing up in
their vegetable patch -- especially when last year's tomato crop consisted
entirely of enormous slicers.
Hardiness and resistance among hybrid plants varies a lot. Some varieties have
been bred to resist pests, but others were developed with the understanding that
growers would use pesticides liberally. Varieties labeled as "hardy" can usually
withstand a bit colder temperatures than those that aren't labeled as such.
Hybrids almost always require much more water than heirloom varieties. With
enough water, hybrid plants produce a bounty of vegetables, but without enough
they simply shrivel and die. Heirloom plants will generally produce a smaller
yield when water is scarce rather than dying off entirely.
Growing vegetables is a worthwhile endeavor regardless of whether you choose to
plant hybrid or heirloom varieties -- or both. Over the long term, heirloom
seeds are more cost-effective and produce higher-quality produce, but hybrid
seeds eliminate much of the risk of growing your own food.