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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hybrids and Heirlooms

If you are ordering your garden seeds, you are probably trying to sort out whether you should order hybrids or heirlooms.  There is a lot of advice out there.  On the one hand, people will tell you that hybrids are more readily available and often more reliable, which can be true.  On the other, people will urge you to go for biodiversity by growing some heirlooms, also a valid argument.

There are many beliefs on both sides of the debate, so I thought it would be useful to examine a few.

Hybrids are evil.  Well, no, probably not.  After all, a "hybrid" is just a cross between two parents; you are a hybrid.  In the seed world, a hybrid has been purposely crossed and bred to exhibit certain characteristics, such as disease resistance, cold tolerance, or early fruiting.

Where you get into trouble, just a bit, is the so-called F1 hybrid, which is a first generation hybrid.  If you save the seeds from these, they will not "breed true" to the mother plant.  So, if you love your F1 hybrid zucchini and save the seeds, the resulting zucchini you get next year will not necessarily have the characteristics you want.  In some cases, the seed won't germinate at all, or will do so poorly.  But if seed-saving is not your concern, hybrid seed is not a big deal in your own garden.

Hybrids are destroying biologic diversity.  It is true that the number of commercially-available varieties of plants has decreased dramatically, and this is partly because of the ubiquity of certain hybrid varieties.  On the macro level, this is of concern because the way we adapt to a changing world is to have a big "library" of genetic diversity available.  So, if you are concerned about climate change warming your area in the near or far future, it will be useful to know there are tomato plants out there that someone has carefully nurtured for generations to grow in a hotter climate.

This doesn't mean, however, that you should never grow a hybrid.  Just make sure you include an heirloom or two; since heirlooms are open-pollinated, they will also cross with other plants in your garden, and soon you will have a variety that is suited to just your little neck of the woods.  As I have stated many times, my most robust tomatoes ever year are the volunteers that spring up like weeds from the compost pile.

Heirlooms are fussy:  Sometimes.  The real issue is that there are so many possibilities that it is easy to pick an heirloom variety that doesn't love your particular garden, while commercial hybrids are generally bred to withstand a wider range of climate differences.  For example, last year I grew a beautiful tomato called Ukranian Purple.  The fruit was lovely, but the poor plant didn't really love the wave of 100 degree days we got, which I should have expected from a hybrid that came from the Ukraine and was bred for a short season with a cold spring.

You aren't  a "real" gardener until you grow heirlooms:  Nonsense.  Yes, like any hobby or sport, gardeners quickly get into little competitions about who is growing the most arcane variety of the most arcane plant.  I have talked to Italian gardeners who won't make sauce from anything but paste tomatoes descended from Italy, and home gardeners who are trying to grow paleo-grains for grinding into their own flour.  I'm guilty of doing this, somewhat.  But if it isn't your thing, don't let it hold you back from gardening.  Sure, I want a bunch of garden nerds who want to spend hours talking to me about their seed choices, but what I really want is for everyone who reads this blog to go out and grow an edible plant or two on their land, whether that is in a pot, a raised bed, or the back 10 acres.  If what that takes is you going to the hardware store and picking up a bunch of commercially-grown hybrid seed, then do just that with no guilt whatsoever.

What varieties are you most excited about this year?
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