Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Open-pollinated vs. Hybrid vs. Heirloom: Plant 'em all!

There are many decisions that a person makes before they begin their gardening journey. Where should I put my garden? How many different vegetables do I want to try? Should I plant a cherry tomato or a slicing tomato, or both? For some gardeners these decisions can go beyond taste or space; some like to know whether the seed is open-pollinated, hybrid, or heirloom.

Open-pollinated (OP) means that the variety is more or less genetically stable. If a plant does not cross pollinate with another variety, the seeds from that plant should produce more plants just like it. 
All of our bean varieties are open-pollinated.
The flower structure of some types of vegetables like beans, peas, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants makes it difficult for cross pollination between varieties. Wind pollinated vegetables like corn cross pollinate easily. Other types of vegetables like cucumbers and squash cross easily. They depend on insects to carry pollen from flower to flower for the plants to produce fruit and eventually seed. Bees will readily transfer pollen from one variety to another. If you’ve ever let a volunteer squash plant grow in your garden, you’ve probably experienced a zumpkin or pumpcchini. These are hybrids that the bees have created and usually are not very good. 

One of the advantages of open-pollinated varieties is that with a little care you can grow your own seed for future use. Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth is an excellent book filled with information about what it takes to grow and save open-pollinated seed. 

Even without cross pollination, open-pollinated seed crops need to be monitored for uniformity. Random off types need to be removed from the field to keep a variety true to type. Random off types are not always bad though. A chance genetic variation, with beneficial traits, can sometimes be grown out for several generations and with careful selection become a new open-pollinated variety.

Hybrid (F1) seed is made by pollinating one variety with pollen from a second variety to produce seed that will grow a third variety. Bees do it all of the time. Hence the zumpkin. Through research, plant breeders have come up with variety crosses that result in a new variety with the characteristics that they are looking for. One open-pollinated variety may have poor flavor but good disease resistance. Another open-pollinated variety may have good flavor but poor disease resistance. The hybrid of the two could have both good flavor and good disease resistance.

Heirloom Marriage™ Big Brandy:
a hybrid of two heirloom varieties.

Some of the advantages of hybrids are that they are very uniform and have something called ‘hybrid vigor’, a tendency of hybrids to have increased growth, size, and yield over both parents. A disadvantage of hybrids is that you cannot save seed from a hybrid plant and expect to get the same variety when you plant that seed.

An example of a hybrid in the animal kingdom is the mule. It’s a cross between a horse and a donkey and considered to have some of the better qualities of both parents. Like Labradoodles, hybrids are not genetically modified. They are just a mixed breed.

How an Heirloom variety is defined depends on who you ask. Most people would agree that heirlooms are older open-pollinated varieties. But what does older mean? One bench mark date is 1951, when hybrid varieties became very common in the marketplace. Some say the variety needs to have been around for more than 100 years.

Generally heirlooms are varieties that haven’t been picked up by big agribusiness and have been maintained by small scale growers and home gardeners who found something that they liked and thought it was worth keeping. Passing something down from generation to generation makes it an heirloom.

Hooker's Sweet Indian Heirloom Corn

So, fellow gardeners, the decision is yours. What type of seed you choose to plant probably has a lot to do with your needs. Do you want to save seed? Do you want a variety that has been around for generations? Or do you just want to grow a delicious vegetable in your own back-yard? 

Author: Matthew K, Information Systems Manager

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