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heirloom pumpkin seeds 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.

Seed Varieties

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 bountiful tomatoes.

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 pepper seeds 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 hybrid cousins.

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.