There seems to be a lot of confusion and misinformation these days concerning the origin and safety of everyday garden seeds.
While I do appreciate many of our heirloom seeds, I also appreciate what hybrid seeds bring to the table.
Unfortunately, misinformation has led to a great number of home gardeners believing that hybrid seeds are genetically modified and unsafe.
It is amazing to see the number of people who fear even the most benign of seed racks at the garden center.
I assure you that the fear is unfounded. Now, I will give you fair warning; this is one of those topics that I can get worked up about. I apologize in advance if I might become a little preachy or stand too long on my soapbox.
Where is this misinformation coming from?
Of course, quite a bit of it comes from the Internet. I have seen many different websites incorrectly claim that hybrid seeds are unsafe and genetically modified.
These sources, while they may be well-intentioned, are making claims that are wildly inaccurate.
I think another source of misinformation is coming from some seed companies themselves.
I do appreciate heirloom seeds and purchase them often. However, some heirloom seed companies I have purchased seeds from make claims in their catalogs and on their seed packets that they are “GMO free.”
These claims of GMO-free seeds confuse gardeners, because there is an insinuation that there must be other seeds out there that are genetically modified.
Please let me reassure you, there are no genetically modified seeds available to home gardeners from any source. I repeat: There are no genetically modified seeds available to home gardeners.
What is a hybrid anyway?
Simply put, a hybrid is a plant with two different parents.
Take for example the Celebrity variety of tomato, which is very popular among home gardeners. In order to get seeds of Celebrity tomatoes, whoever produces the seeds must always cross two specific parent plants to get those specific seeds, called an F1 hybrid.
These parents have been developed through traditional breeding programs (read: the birds and the bees — no modification here) from many different crosses.
Hybridization has occurred naturally ever since there were plants. Man has been directing this process throughout most of his agricultural history to get better crop plants.
How else would we have many of the vegetables and fruits that we take for granted today?
Crops like corn have very little resemblance to its wild counterpart, many thanks to selection and even crossing of superior plants by humans over the centuries.
University researchers and seed developers use this natural ability of plants to cross to direct the formation of new varieties that improve our ability to produce food.
What is an heirloom?
Perhaps the first question we should ask is, what is an open-pollinated seed? An open-pollinated variety is one whose genetics are stable enough that there is no need for specific parent plants, because the seeds produced from either self-pollination (as in the case of beans and tomatoes) or cross-pollination with the same variety will produce the same variety.
An “heirloom” plant is basically an open-pollinated plant that has a history, either through age (50-plus years) or through heritage (it has a family story).
Take for example the Mortgage Lifter tomato.
It was developed by a gentleman living in West Virginia (there are two competing stories as to who developed it). For all intents and purposes, the Mortgage Lifter started out as a hybrid, since the gardener in question developed the tomato by crossing many different varieties to find one that he liked.
It just so happened that the genetics of this tomato were stable enough that its offspring had the same characteristics, so seeds could be saved.
Over time, the tomato became considered an heirloom because of both its age and unique story.
This story has played out many times, in many gardens and in many research plots at universities.
There are some trying to revive the practice of plant breeding for the home gardener. I recently took part in a garden conference hosted by the West Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association. Among the speakers was Joseph Tychonievich, who spoke about home plant breeding.
I found the talk inspiring.
Luckily, he has a book that tells you all about it, called “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener,” from Timber Press. I suggest you take a look at it.
Who knows? Maybe in 50 years we will be celebrating your plant as a distinctive heirloom.
Hybrids vs. heirlooms
There are pros and cons to hybrid plants and heirlooms both, so there really isn’t an answer as to which one you should plant. It really boils down to personal choice.
Hybrid plants tend to have more resistance to diseases and pests, due to the fact that breeders are actively trying to boost resistance.
This means that there will be higher-quality produce fewer inputs. This is why hybrids are popular with farmers — nicer, cleaner-looking fruits with fewer pesticides.
Many times hybrids are also on the more productive side, thanks to a phenomenon called hybrid vigor.
Heirlooms, on the other hand, help preserve our genetic diversity and even tell our cultural story.
Heirlooms do not require a breeding program, so there is built-in resilience, knowing that we can produce these seeds well into the future with little intervention.
But we do have a trade-off with typically less disease-resistance and less consistency on things like yield.
Heirlooms also hold part of our cultural identity and tell our history. They are the history of our people and the food that they eat, all wrapped up into one tiny package. They are the diversity that spans our region and the globe. You can open any heirloom seed catalog and see this diversity on display (this year I bought Baker Creek’s 365-page behemoth heirloom seed catalog).
There’s no better place to see this history of our region through seeds than the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center which has connections to Berea College in Kentucky.
While looking through their seed listings (they have mostly tomatoes and beans, since those are the easiest to save), you can see seeds connected to families, farms and individuals collected throughout Appalachia and preserved for future generations. You can take a look (and buy seeds) at www.heirlooms.org.
So, for a seedy conclusion …
Selecting seeds is a matter of personal choice for home gardeners. Hybrids and heirlooms both have benefits to the home garden, and both are GMO-free — I promise.
It is wise to weigh the pros and cons of both seed types before making your selection. Just remember to cut through the hype and make an informed decision based on facts and not fear.