For the beginning gardener there are many choices to make; rows on the ground or raised beds, hand watering or automated irrigation, organic or chemical fertilizer? One of the more confusing subjects is what type of seeds to use. There is a lot of talk right now about organic farming, intensive farming, monoculture, permaculture and GMOs but it still comes down to the basics; gardeners have a choice between hybrid seeds and heirloom seeds when they plant their veggies.
Hybrids can offer uniform fruit, often with superior disease resistances, reliable productivity, and a particular maturity range which means that you can control when you can harvest. Hybrid seeds are produced when plant breeders cross breed compatible types of plants in an effort to create a plant with the best features of both parents. For instance a plant that is known to produce very high yields might be crossed with a plant that is known to begin producing early in the season, creating a hybrid plant that produces early and heavily. While the new plant will produce seeds, those seeds will not produce future plants with the hybrid’s characteristics but rather it will revert to one of the parent plants’ characteristics. Therefore, if the gardener wants to grow a favorite hybrid plant year after year, he will have to buy the hybrid seeds each season.
Hybrids are not the same thing as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). A GMO can be any plant, animal or microorganism which has been genetically altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering. An example of a GMO crop is corn that has the pesticide Bt engineered into its genetic makeup to make it resistant to certain pests. In theory, the home gardener will not be growing GMO crops because those seeds are the exclusive domain of corporate farmers producing commodity crops.
Heirloom fruits and vegetables are often local favorites and can look and taste quite different than their supermarket counterparts. Heirlooms are often considered superior in taste to supermarket produce but because of low yields or difficulty in transporting their delicate produce, they are not considered suitable for commercial production. The term heirloom describes any type of seed that has historically been saved to be re-planted each season, often being passed down by generations of gardeners. To be capable of being saved and passed down for generations, heirloom seeds must be open pollinated. Open pollinated plants are simply varieties that are capable of producing seeds that will produce plants just like the parent plant. If the gardener wants to grow a favorite heirloom plant year after year, he must save seeds from the strongest, tastiest plants to re-plant the following season.
In choosing which seeds to use the gardener must take into account their climate and conditions, for crops that historically do well in your area go ahead and try out some heirlooms. If you want to try a crop that is particularly disease prone, find a nice disease resistant hybrid to grow. Eventually each gardener will learn through trial and error which plants are worth growing in their particular climate and gardening zone.