Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hybrid vs Heirloom

There tends to be a controversy about what is the better vegetable to plant in the garden, hybrids (not GMOs, just plain old hybrids) or heirlooms. In most circumstances, the choice will depend on what the grower wants or needs to grow, market, taste they are looking for and speed they need in growth. There can be other situations that a grower would want to look at, but these would normally be the basics.

If you, as a grower, want to save seeds from what you produce, then in most cases, you’ll want heirlooms. While theoretically seeds can be saved from any plant, hybrids tend to not always reproduce true to the parent or reproduce at all. A quick experiment I did a few years ago with 5 hybrid cauliflower seeds that I saved from the previous year yielded two plants that produced a vegetable, 2 that remained plants only, and one seed that never produced at all. I plan on doing some further work to see how far I would have to go to get seeds that produce true at all times, but for the initial run, had I been relying on those seeds for the year’s cauliflower, I would have been sadly disappointed. On the other hand, saving the seeds from an heirloom will produce plants and fruit true to the parent.

The reason for this is that heirloom plants (and therefore seeds) have been developed through open (natural) pollination, keeping the seeds of the best of that year for the following year. And by continuing to follow suit, developing hearty varieties that grow true. Hybrids, on the other hand, have been artificially pollinated working to obtain in one plant, the best characteristics of 2 different parent plants. Therefore, when trying to save seeds from hybrids, you may get the exact vegetable you had last year, a throwback or even nothing at all.

The next thing that a grower will look at, is the market. Today, many consumers are shopping and buying locally, direct from farms and farmer’s markets. Although most really do not look at whether or not they are buying hybrids or heirlooms, the heirloom market is expanding as more consumers, including restaurants, are looking specifically for these products. Although the heirloom market will probably never close down the hybrid market by any means, as the mass market still wants the hybrids, it does pay to look at what the consumer wants, especially if you are a grower who sells the majority (or all) of what you produce, locally.

Taste is another thing the growers may consider when choosing between hybrids and heirlooms. Although this aspect will be consideration more for the personal garden, those who sell will also pay attention to taste as far as consumer preference. (More so for the local sellers than the mass marketers.) My family tends to find the heirlooms tastier than many of the hybrids. However I had put in some hybrid cherry tomatoes last year that were sweet as sugar with heavy production and surprisingly, very hearty.

Selection by taste will be a trial and error type of situation. Unless you’ve had the fruit or vegetable before, be it heirloom or hybrid, the taste will be unknown until it is grown and tasted, whether growing for home or market.

Speed of growth may be important as well. If you, as a grower, insist in starting seeds directly in the ground, then you will need to look at growth time. Heirlooms can tend to be slow growers, but then again, so can many hybrids. If you are in a short growing season and do not want to start seeds indoors, then the limitations are being dictated from this point and seeds will need to be chosen that fit the time available for growth. If seeds are started indoors and ahead of time, however, unless the garden is in an area with a very short growing season, limitations in selection will be few.

Finally, what does the grower need? If you are growing for yourself, you’ll choose what you want, what you like, what tastes good to you and your family and what will work in your garden. If you are growing for market, then you’ll be selecting more for what the market is dictating, although there is nothing wrong with trying to introduce your consumers to something new. And if you do so, have a few tasting samples available, and if it is a really new and different fruit or vegetable, have ideas on how to use it.

In going back to what is better…hybrids or heirlooms….it all depends. Each has its’ place. While purists or those focusing on seed saving might decide on straight heirlooms, market gardeners and mass marketers may focus more on the faster growing and many times larger hybrids. Some may grow both types. But in the end, the decision will be what will work best for the situation at hand.

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