Mar 29

5 Things Nobody’s Telling You About Heirloom Seeds

What will their grandchildren be?

What will their grandchildren be?

There is a lot of confusion right now about seeds, and understandably so.

First, know you cannot buy a GE seed, what is commonly referred to as GMO, unless you are a farmer and sign a contract with Monsanto.

Second, a hybrid is not a genetically engineered seed. Hybrids can be crossed simply when a bee flies from one plant to another, from one type of melon to another for example.
This won't affect your veggies, only the seeds.

So why are so many people vehemently anti-hybrid and pro-heirloom?

Well, for one thing, that sells seeds.
IMHO companies that sell primarily heirloom seeds are capitalizing on the confusion.

So let us set the record straight.

With some exceptions:

1. Heirlooms are more subject to disease.

Often a commercial hybrid seed grower (remember, not GE) will cross plants specifically to develop new ones that are more disease resistant. If your garden is particularly prone to certain diseases, a hybrid may be the better choice for you.

2. Heirlooms tend to suffer more from bug damage.

Similarly, commercial hybrid seed producers try to find varieties of veggies that are less prone to bad bugs, and develop this positive characteristic.

3. Heirloom plants tend to be less tolerant of temperature and weather extremes.

Again there are exceptions, but varieties bred for heat resistance for example, may do better in your yard than mine. As for early production, the hybrid Early Girl and the heirloom Oregon Spring both have done well in our gardens. I admit I preferred the taste of the heirloom, but I got a better production from the hybrid. Every gardener should decide for themselves.

4. Heirloom plants tend to produce less.

Because of the reasons already mentioned, and also since many hybrids are bred to be more productive, this circumstance tends to be true. We planted a hybrid Cashflow Zucchini and have never before seen such production. On the other hand, the heirloom Costata Romanesco, although producing significantly less, tasted far superior.

5. You can save Heirloom seeds, but not Hybrid seeds.

Yes and no on this one. Commercial hybrids do tend to be sterile for the most part, and if you do get a fertile seed, it will revert back to one of its ancestors. We will be looking into that more specifically this coming growing season.
As for saving heirloom seeds, you can't just grab an eggplant or a pepper and keep the seeds with full expectation your next year's plant will be the same heirloom.

Why? you may wonder.

Because, unless you know what you are doing, you may very well have produced a hybrid seed in your own garden. Through cross-pollination, whether by bugs or wind, your heirlooms might just have become fruit containing hybrid seeds.
In fact, in most cases they probably are.

Of course this is less likely to happen with beans and peas, and tomatoes will cross but not as easily as pretty much everything else. Corn? Forget about it! So you see, you need to know how & if they cross, and how to prevent it if you want to save heirloom seeds.

So you make the call on what is best for your garden.
They are not GE (GMO) seeds, so forget that for now.

If you want to save seeds, learn how. We will be showing that too, in great detail, this summer.
If you do not care to save seeds, then choose the veggie varieties that grow best in your area.

And most of all, don't stress it.
Above everything else, gardening should be fun!

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  1. Problem here is confusing heirloom with open-pollinated. Heirloom seeds were introduced at least 50 years ago, and may be hybrids. Open-pollinated seeds reproduce true unless cross pollinated by wind, insects, etc. Are open-pollinated (“heirloom”) seeds more prone to disease than hybrids? If they were, would people have saved them for generations? Sellers of hybrid seeds can afford to have universities test seeds for disease resistance, and that will show on seed packets, as VFFN, etc.

    • Avatar of gj
    • gj on March 29, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    I am not confusing heirloom with open pollinated, and am quite aware of the difference. People save seeds for many reasons, and since it is all but useless to save a hybrid seed, then yes people would save seeds from heirlooms even if there was a hybrid that may be superior in some way.
    The main point here is that hybrids are not genetically engineered seeds, and nothing to be afraid of. Far too many people are confused in this area. I hear/read it almost daily. Heirlooms are great, and we grow many ourselves, but it is also good to grow hybrids if that suits a person’s need better.

  2. In my experience, points 1 through 4 are exactly the opposite of how you describe them. I grow organically. I use NO pesticides and NO fertilizers. I’ve been on the same property for over 12 years. I have lost three crops to insects. I ONLY use heirloom and o/p seeds – not all heirloom but all o/p. I save my own seeds as much as I can and because I’m using o/p, I’m getting plants that thrive in my climate – which is much different than the rest of the US. If you want to spray insecticides, poison, and use lots of fertilizer, then you HAVE to go with the hybrids because that is what they were bred for. If, on the other hand, you wish to use less of both, then the o/p varieties are much more what you should seek because they were bred without those inputs in mind.

    If you are going to save seeds, you must choose the varieties that grow best in your climate. If you want to be a non-chemical grower, you must grow the plants bred for that. In my thinking, only those that don’t know any better would trouble themselves with a modern hybrid. They might have better production, but if I can’t save the seeds, I’m dependent on some entity that doesn’t really care about my needs for my food. It is a lie to think that a plant that grows well in New York is the same one that will grow in Seattle, or Topeka or Dallas. Yet the seed companies want you think that’s true.

    Seed needs to become local again. All gardening is local. Trusting in seed companies means a diminishing of varieties and the fewer varieties puts us closer to famine. We need a multiplicity of varieties to insure abundance.

    • Avatar of gj
    • Remy on March 29, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    I started off happy about the article because of the correct statements about GMOs and hybrids. They are not one in the same and GMOs as you stated can not be puchased by a the home gardener. There are only a few crop that are GMO to begin with. This list as of this time is:
    Soy Beans
    Sugar Beets
    Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash
    And as state before, NONE can be acquired by a home gardener.
    Unfortunately after that many statements that are not true.

    “1. Heirlooms are more subject to disease.”
    You should be using the term OP (OPen Pollnated) as that is the proper term for non-hybrid seed. Heirloom has no true seed definition. Anyone can slap heirloom on as an adjective. Since some hybrids are now well over 50 years old, they too can be called a heirloom by people.

    Hybrids can be made specifically for a disease, but they are also made for other reasons like being shippable (slow to rot,) uniform crop production within a small time frame, or even for good taste like Sungold cherry tomato. (Sungold is one of the best cherries ever in my opinion, so I am by no means anti-hybrid.)
    OP varieties can have a lot of disease resistance. Often stories of their resistance they are ancetodal by gardeners as they are not tested like hybrids. It is not worth the cost for companies to pay for testing for an OP that is not their exclusive as a hybrid.
    It also depends of the disease. Most tomatoes hybrid or OP are susceptible to Late Blight. You can not go to a store and buy Late Blight resistant tomatoes as it is a fugal disease. The letters after hybrid tomato names are for viral and bacterial disease. Matt’s Wild Cherry though is a OP and is resistant to Late Blight.
    “2. Heirlooms tend to suffer more from bug damage.”
    This is not true in any way shape or form, sorry. Only GMOs are bred to kill bugs. If you have a bug issue, you will have it regardless of hybrid or OP.
    “3. Heirloom plants tend to be less tolerant of temperature and weather extremes.”
    These traits are cutivar specific to hybrid or OP. Depending on where an OP was developed and for what use, it can be as good any hybrid. Many hybrids were not bred to be anymore tolerant of a temperature extreme than an OP.
    “4. Heirloom plants tend to produce less.”
    Some OPs do produce less and may be popular because of taste over production, but there is such a vast array of varieties, and some produce exceptionally well. Some hybrids are bred for production as I said before. Many times it is for a fast uniform crop which is good for commercial production or canning. But a home gardener may want a drawn out time frame of production for fresh eating so over a whole season the plant may produce as much.
    Also, I’ve grow so many tomato varieties over the years, and I’ve found the idea that hybrids produce more to be a complete myth. Except for where wonderful taste is involved like Sungold, I’ve stopped growing them simply because they didn’t taste as good and did not produce more to make the drop in taste worth them having a space in the garden.
    “5. You can save Heirloom seeds, but not Hybrid seeds.
    ….Commercial hybrids do tend to be sterile for the most part, and if you do get a fertile seed, it will revert back to one of its ancestors.”
    This is all completely false.
    Most hybrids do produce seed as readily as OPs. There are very very few sterile varieties.
    If you grow seeds from a hybrid, it will not revert. That is biologically impossible. When growing plants from hybrid seed, there will be diversity so they will no longer be uniform. How much diversity depends on the genetic make up of the plants used to produce the hybrid. You could notice huge variations or subtle differences.
    You can develop your own OP that is close in character to the hybrid, but it takes space and time since you must grow out many plants culling those that do not match what you are looking for, and then do that for a 5-7 years until all the plants are completely uniform.
    Also as you mention farther along, yes, you often do need to have isolation depending on the crop because you will keep producing mixed seed.
    Also all peas and beans are OP, you will not find hybrids on the market.
    Corn need a good long distance from other corn to be saved as it is wind pollinated, but that can be over come with timing. The bigger issue with corn is have a large enough field as corn is inbreeding and it will not sustain its characteristics properly if you do not have a larger field of at least 200 plants.

    Sorry to seem so nitpicky. I just want the correct information to be known.

    • Avatar of gj
    • gj on March 31, 2014 at 6:22 am

    Once again, I am not confusing heirlooms with open pollinated seeds, and there are in fact heirloom beans and peas. Just take a look in Baker Creek seed catalog.
    It has been my experience that when it comes to heirloom vs, hybrid, if there is a problem it is much more like to be with the heirloom. It has been my experience, and many other gardeners agree with me, that heirloom plants, when there is a difference, tend to be weaker making them more subject to issues,
    I am not saying they are bad, I grow many heirlooms each year. I just think people should know the difference.
    If you have better luck with heirloom plants than with hybrids, good for you!

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