As we move into the autumn of the year, many of us are already looking forward to spring and what the next growing cycle might bring for our gardens. Local nurseries and garden supply stores can be great places to acquire plants and seedlings, but if you want a wider variety and a chance to try something new, you may want to buy or order seeds. We’ve talked about the best places to get seeds, and how to start seeds at home, but there are still a few other questions to address. Some of you have reached out asking about the difference between heirloom and hybrid seeds. This is a really good question, and there are many misconceptions about heirloom vs hybrid seeds in the gardening world. Let’s dig in and take a closer look.
What are Heirloom Seeds?
Heirloom seeds are popular, and with good reason. Heirloom varietals have been developed over many years and many generations of plants by saving seeds and using them season after season. In order for this to occur, heirloom varietals must be open pollinated. Open pollination refers to pollination which occurs naturally, when animals or insects or the wind move pollen from one flower to another and cause pollination to occur.
As a result of natural pollination, heirloom varietals will produce seeds that breed true, meaning the resulting plant is just like the parent plants. This is especially important for many garden vegetables, as gardeners using the seeds year after year generally want to produce the same kind of veggie that they enjoyed in previous seasons. Ornamental plants may benefit from heirloom breeding to, as the same flowers and blooms return every year when replanted. It goes without saying that for ornamentals, heirloom seeds are especially important for annuals in order to get consistent results.
What are Hybrid Seeds?
In contrast with heirloom seeds, hybrid seeds are the result of cross-pollination of different varietals, very often done deliberately by plant breeders or nurseries who want to produce a plant with the best traits from both parents. This may sound ideal—you get seeds that produce a plant with superior characteristics—but there is a downside. A plant grown from hybrid seeds will render its own seeds that may or may not develop the same traits as their parent plant. To put it a bit differently, seeds from a plant grown from hybrid seeds may not have the same characteristics as the original hybrid. Their genetic line may stabilize over a few generations, but for now the offspring will be something quite different.
All of this raises another question—can you produce your own hybrids at home by cross-breeding different varietals via hand pollination? Yes, you absolutely can and many gardeners find this an interesting and rewarding pursuit. The details on how to go about this will be the subject of a future blog, as we’re still learning ourselves. But gardening is all about experimentation, and if you’re so inclined you can give hybridization a try.
What About GMO Seeds?
GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seeds very often come up in discussions about hybrid seeds, but the two are not the same things. Hybrids, as we’ve said, are the result of carefully controlling the natural processes of pollination in order to produce seeds that carry desirable traits from both parent plants. GMO seeds, by contrast, are the products of genetic engineering, in which scientist modify the DNA of the plant to introduce traits such as disease resistance, drought resistance, or higher yields.
There’s a lot of controversy around GMOs and what their long-term impact will be. We can’t go into it all here, but we can remind you that GMOs are not hybrids, and vice versa. Any concerns about GMO plants don’t apply to hybrids, so we hope that clears things up a bit.
Which is Better, Heirloom or Hybrid Seeds?
Now let’s address the last and perhaps biggest question: are heirloom or hybrid seeds better? As so often happens in the world of gardening, the answer is ‘depends’: if you want to save seeds and plant them year after year, heirlooms are best. Hybrids can give you plants with the traits you want, but saving seeds is much more unreliable. Heirlooms are wonderful in that they connect us to history and let us explore what previous generations of farmers and gardeners did, while hybrids are exciting and offer something new nearly every year. Which you prefer is up to you—it’s your garden and you get to grow it how you like!
If you have experiences with either heirloom or hybrid seeds, or advice about how to get the most out of them, please reach out and share your stories with us. Gardzen is all about community, and we love to hear from you!