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Understanding Seeds: Hybrid vs. Heirloom, Which is Best?

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Hybrid and heirloom are two terms that are thrown around a lot in the gardening world and it can often be difficult to figure out what exactly they mean and how these two terms are different. Hybrid and heirloom refer to the way that the plants are reproduced and the effect that this has on the seed. It is hard to say that one is better over the other, but this article will give you a helpful overview of how to choose which one is right for you.

What is a hybrid plant?

Though you may think of dogs and horses when you think of breeders, there are actually specific plant breeders whose job it is to breed and develop plant varieties. These plant breeders cross breed different varieties of plants from the same species to pull out the best qualities from each variety.

For instance, if one type of tomato grows quickly, and another is incredibly juicy, they will cross these plants to create a better seed. These hybrids are often unstable, however, and will not self-pollinate. In order to have the same plant next year, you will need to purchase the same seeds.

This cross-pollination is a natural occurrence in nature, but plant breeders simply encourage cross-pollination among varieties of their choosing. Hybrid plants are developed specifically for qualities such as dependability, less required care, early maturity, higher yield, improved flavor, specific plant size, and better disease resistance. These vegetables are usually uniform and fairly traditional in appearance.

A note on GMOs

Any conversation regarding genetic manipulation and plant varieties will inevitably have to discuss the very controversial topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetically modified plants are plants that have been chemically altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering. GMOs are used to make the vegetables bigger, better, brighter, and faster growing.

There is a large amount of well-founded concern regarding the widespread use of GMOs in the food industry and potential links to diseases such as cancer. Keep in mind that GMOs are not naturally occurring and would not exist without extensive human intervention and chemicals, pesticides, and outside DNA.

Hybrid plants are NOT GMOs. The act of cross-pollination used to develop hybrid plants is not a lab process, and with a little patience, you could make your own hybrid varieties. So any of the health issues related to GMOs do not exist with hybrids.

What is an heirloom plant?

An heirloom plant is essentially just what the name suggests. It is an old variety that has been passed down from gardener to gardener for decades. These plants self pollinate without human intervention. For instance, seeds are carried by wind or insect rather than human manipulation. This is referred to as “open pollination” meaning that in order for a plant to classify as an heirloom, it must be capable of producing seedlings that will reproduce and so on.

These type of plants can help preserve “pure” strains of the vegetable and many believe they produce a more flavorful harvest. Heirlooms come with a sense of nostalgia and authenticity that many gardeners value, as they seek to capture and carry on the traditions and varieties of generations past.

Generally speaking, due to the lack of manipulation in these varieties, heirloom vegetables will usually be more individualistic in nature and you won’t find typical supermarket uniformity. Fruit size, color, and shape may even vary among a single plant.

So which one is better hybrid or heirloom?

Instead of choosing one or the other, try incorporating both hybrid and heirloom plants into your garden. Hybrid plants can help ensure a consistent yield, better resist disease, and are incredibly hardy. While heirlooms bring variety, flavor, and the seeds can be used year after year. Keep this fact in mind when selecting plants, as you will have to incur costs for seeds every year with hybrid varieties. Heirlooms, with proper care and seed collection, are a one time expense.

Ultimately, the choice between hybrids and heirlooms comes down to personal gardening goals and your own preference. Take control of your garden and grow what you want or what suits your garden best.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different types of seeds and you can even try developing hybrids yourself!

-Taylor Ramsey

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