A Primer: Hybrids, Heirlooms and Open-Pollinated Varieties

In the last few years we have seen a big resurgence of vegetable gardening as a hobby. That has resulted in a lot of new gardeners trying their hands at an old pastime, and frankly I think that is a good thing. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone in the U.S. had a little garden plot, and it’s nice to see somewhat of a return to the days when people were more in touch with their food. Of course there are plenty of good reasons to grow your own food, and it can be a rewarding activity on many levels. It is great exercise too, and who knows, you might live to be 100 like some of the residents on the Greek island of Ikaria, where gardening is an integral part of life.

On the surface, the mechanics of gardening seem pretty easy. You plant something in the soil, give it a little water and food, then wait for it to grow into something tasty. But the devil is in the details, as they say. Trying to decide what varieties to plant can be one of the more difficult details for most gardeners, me included. It is so easy to be seduced by glossy catalogs and websites with photos of picture perfect vegetables, flowers and fruits. And the marketing departments employ writers who can make even humdrum varieties seem exciting with phrases like “What an amazing feast for the eyes!” (Burpee ad for tomato) or “A heavy harvest of crisp sweetness that is virtually stringless-what a way to usher in summer!” (a Territorial Seed ad for a snap pea).

seed catalogs entice gardeners

To further complicate things, the media and the seed companies alternately sing the praises of both the older, open-pollinated heirloom varieties and the newly introduced hybrids. How is a gardener to separate fact from fiction, and truth from hype? I believe information and education is the key. As the old adage goes, being forearmed is being forewarned. So I want to talk a little bit about the differences between open pollinated, heirloom and hybrid seeds. And hopefully that will help a bit with the seed selection process for both new and seasoned gardeners.

Let’s start with hybrids, and I’ll try to keep it simple. A hybrid results from the controlled pollination of one genetically uniform variety with the pollen from another genetically uniform variety. A seed company or hybridizer chooses male and female parents with specific traits and characteristics to produce a brand new offspring variety. Parents may be selected for disease resistance, earliness, unformity, color or flavor depending on the qualities sought for the new variety. The pollination is done by hand, and it is very labor intensive to produce the quantities of seed needed for mass marketing. That is one reason that hybrid seed is usually more expensive than open-pollinated varieties.

quart box of Sungold tomatoes

quart box of Sungold tomatoes

An F1 hybrid is the first generation offspring of the controlled pollination of the two parents. That is the seed that you buy, and plant. This generation usually has a vigor that is not present in open-pollinated varieties, and can result in higher yields. But one big downside to hybrids is that they don’t “breed true”. If you plant the seeds you save from an F1 hybrid they will not be the same as they were the first year, and in fact may be wildly different, reverting to ancestral forms. For that reason, hybrid seed must be purchased from the seed company. The original cross pollination of the two parent varieties must be repeated every year in order to produce the hybrid seed. Common home tomato varieties like Sun Gold, Early Girl and Celebrity are all hybrids.

So many varieties to choose from!

By contrast, open-pollinated (O.P.) varieties are stable strains that originally resulted either by chance or by human selections for their desirable traits. These varieties will breed true, and the offspring will remain fairly close to their parents, but with less uniformity than F1 hybrids. The seed source of O.P. varieties is kept “true” by utilizing the proper isolation of seed plants from each other to prevent cross-pollination by bees or wind. With these seeds cross-pollination with other varieties is not desirable, which can result in ‘off” types. Home gardeners can save seed from O.P. varieties as long as recommended practices for each species are followed. One good reference book for vegetable seed savers is “Seed To Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, which has detailed instructions for each vegetable.

The definition of an heirloom variety differs between experts, but generally speaking you can think of heirlooms as antique open-pollinated varieties, often ones that are from a particular geographic region. Heirloom varieties have sometimes been handed down from generation to generation, or have been carried by immigrants as they move to settle in new places. Heirlooms have generally been around for at least 50 years, though some have been around much longer. For example, Oakleaf lettuce was first introduced in the 1770’s, when it was known as ‘American Oak Leaved’ lettuce. And Golden Queen tomato was a family heirloom that was discovered by Alexander Livingston at a county fair. He grew out seeds from the tomatoes, selected and improved the strain, then released it commercially in 1882.

Oakleaf Lettuce

Oakleaf lettuce

So how do you decide which types are best for you? To be sure, there is a big difference in taste and performance between different varieties. But beware of open-ended claims like “open pollinated varieties taste better” or “hybrids are more productive”. To be sure, many hybrids are created for large scale growers and not necessarily bred for great flavor. But many of the hybrids bred for the home grower have good flavor as a top priority, along with disease resistance and dependability. And these hybrids are the ones you are most likely to see in the gardening catalogs for home gardeners.

Heirlooms have the benefit of history on their side. They have stood the test of time, which means they have many desirable qualities that keep gardeners growing them year after year. But since some of them are regional specialties, it’s possible they might not do well in your area. For instance, a tomato that does well in cold weather areas might not do as well in the heat and humidity. And of course if seed saving is important to you, then O.P. varieties will have a special appeal.

Suffice it to say there are plenty of varieties to choose from, and it helps to know what specific qualities you want in a given vegetable. Let’s use broccoli as an example. Hybrid varieties are more likely to mature at about the same time, which can be good if you’re preserving the harvest but not as good if you want an extended harvest. Some of the O.P. varieties are likely to give you broccoli over a longer period of time, but if you have disease issues in your garden then hybrids might fare better. It all depends on your goals, conditions, geography and weather!

Here at Happy Acres we grow a mix of hybrids, open-pollinated and heirloom varieties. The heirloom Oakleaf lettuce often grows just a few feet away from hybrid tomatoes like Early Girl and Sun Gold. And if ever there was a poster child for hybrids with good taste, Sun Gold would get my vote. I love the flavor and productivity of Sun Gold, even if it does have a tendency to split open sometimes just as the tomatoes get ripe. But I also love the heirloom pepper Jimmy Nardello which rivals the productivity of hybrids with lots of sweet and tasty red ripe peppers. Of course, just because Jimmy Nardello does well for me doesn’t mean it will grow well for you, but it is something to consider.

Jimmy Nardello heirloom peppers

Jimmy Nardello heirloom peppers

For further reading, Renee’s Garden Seeds has a short article about how home gardeners can choose from all the different varieties. And a NY Times article titled “Heirloom Seeds or Flinty Hybrids?” has industry titans like Rob Johnston (chairman of Johnny’s Selected Seeds ) and Jere Gettle (owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds) weighing in with their opinions. Both articles make for interesting reading.

I hope I have helped shed a little light on this sometimes difficult to understand subject. Gardening is a fun activity enjoyed by millions worldwide, and I want to do all I can to help remove the mystery and make it easier and more rewarding. And Happy Growing from Happy Acres to all of you gardeners out there!

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