Hybrid vs Heirloom?

Hybrid? Open pollinated? Heirloom? Genetically modified?

What’s it all mean? What is the difference? What’s better? How do we choose?

Here’s my general guidelines and a few reasons why I choose what to grow ….

Let’s start with what we do not grow … gmo. Never.

Let’s hope honest science and honest research can catch up with what is actually happening to people’s health. Someday the technology will offer a true benefit. For now … No to gmo.

Heirloom tomatoes are old time tomatoes and should have some type of history behind them. Open pollinated tomatoes are similar, however may lack the recorded history. I love growing heirloom and open pollinated tomatoes. To me, their flavors are more mystical, more old-fashioned, and more complex than in hybrid tomatoes. The seed of heirloom and open pollinated tomatoes can be saved by home gardeners and most of the plants and their fruits will be closely identical to the original.

The hybrids we offer are not genetically modified but hybridized by moving pollen from one plant to the flower of another plant. The parents might be kept in secret by the breeding company and the seed will not produce an identical plant. My understanding is that by growing out and saving these seeds for several generations, a great, great grandchild plant may finally produce a similar fruit to the original hybrid.

To my tongue, hybrid tomatoes have more acid. I tell plant customers, ‘they bite you back.” Heirlooms very seldom bite but are usually of a mellow nature. Blacks are always mellow and mystical. Yellows, golds, oranges, whites can be very, VERY mellow. Greens are the sharpest, sometimes even sharper than hybrids.

In sweet peppers, we choose hybrids to get a greater number of fruit, fancier shapes, and more colors. Some of the open pollinated produce lots of peppers, too, such as Chinese Giant.

There are many unique open pollinated hot peppers. As a home gardener, it would be fun to plant a different hot pepper occasionally. Some have extra-ordinary heat levels, shapes, and flavors. Peppers will cross indiscriminately so if you want to save seed, grow one variety each summer. And check your neighborhood. Bees can carry pollen two or more miles.

In eggplant, the open pollinated varieties are 80 to 90 days to maturity. We can find hybrids that mature in 60 days which is important to a market vendor. As a home gardener, I’d probably not worry about earliness but would plant an open pollinated so that I could save the seeds.

Radishes? We choose mostly hybrids to give us an extra week to harvest. Spring weather can be very erratic. A sudden warming spell will send open pollinated radishes into a bolt as they shoot up a stalk for blooming and setting seed. We’ve had long rows of open pollinated radishes bolt a few days before harvest, leaving us with nothing for Market.

Beans are mostly open pollinated and it is easy to allow a few plants’ pods to remain on the plant, dry completely, to be harvested and shelled for next year’s planting. Bean flowers ‘trip’ before opening; bees do not do the pollinating. You are quite safe saving seed even while planting numerous varieties.

Winter squash comes in hybrids, open pollinated, and heirlooms. I really enjoy growing and eating the heirlooms and some of the open pollinated. One problem with heirlooms, most are larger, ranging from 10 to 15 pounds, making them a harder sell as our families continue to shrink. Traditional breeders have dedicated many years in breeding sweeter, smoother-fleshed, and smaller squash. Johnny’s delicious Sunshine squash took 20 years of breeding work and years of increasing the seed supply for this highly-popular new squash. Now Johnny’s is introducing a smaller, sweeter butternut squash called Butterscotch, weighing only two pounds.

This year, I searched Baker Creel Seed catalog for small, good-tasting heirloom squash. Conclusion: Half of our planting will be tried and true familiar hybrids (acorn, spaghetti, buttercup, butternut) and half of our planting will be unique heirloom and open pollinated squashes from around the world.

One word of advice: Spend a little more on quality seed. When seed packets are ten for a dollar, you are probably paying for paper and packaging.

Our favorite seed catalogs:

Happy dreaming, planning, and planting!