Heirloom seeds, hybrid seeds, what do you choose?
I don’t know about you guys, but when I first ventured into the world of vegetable gardening, I heard these two words a lot without a clue what they meant when it comes to the garden. I thought, ‘What’s the deal with sticking the label hybrid or heirloom on a plant, a cauliflower is a cauliflower regardless of the label, right?’
Turns out there’s a bit more to it than just a fancy name!
An heirloom is defined as something special, of value, handed down from generation to generation. It’s the same with heirloom (or heritage as they’re also known) seeds. These seeds are from plants grown by our ancestors and passed down, each baby seedling a pretty much exact replica of the parent plant.
Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated and will produce seeds that are ‘true to type’. This means they are either self-pollinated or pollinated by a plant in the same variety to then produce offspring that are akin to their parent plant.
Hybrid seeds are the seeds produced by plants that have been cross-pollinated. This means the pollen from one plant has been transferred to a different plant of the same species. The produce that grows once the plant has been pollinated will be the same, but the seeds saved from that produce will not be the same as the parent plant.
A pumpkin pollinated by a zucchini will still produce a pumpkin. If you were to save the seeds of that new pumpkin however and plant those, you would end up with a zucchini/pumpkin hybrid cross.
Hybrid seeds produced by seed companies are made very deliberately. Plants will be picked based on things like their size, disease resistance and yield and cross-pollinated to produce an elite sort of plant. As the offspring produced by that plant won’t be the same as the parent and you won’t know what you’ll get, you have to rebuy hybrid seeds each year instead of seed saving.
So what’s better, hybrid or heirloom?
Hybrids are faster, stronger and usually produce better than heirloom plants. They are however a one trick pony. You will need to rebuy them every year which puts you out of pocket and fills the pockets of the giant seed companies. Though hybrid seeds produce plants that are disease resistant and can mass produce, this is often at the expense of taste and nutrients. An heirloom tomato will often have more flavour and vitamins than a hybrid.
The act of seed saving that heirloom produce allows is more than just saving money. It’s amazing to know you are growing the exact same plant that grew hundreds of years ago. Koanga Institue in New Zealand does some amazing work with keeping NZ heirloom varieties alive. Their selection is just awesome, so many delicious varieties. Buy one packet of seeds and you can grow and save seed forever!
Want to read a cool story? A school in Canada found an 800-year-old squash a few years ago with preserved seeds! They have successfully grown a squash from these seeds and are now working on saving more seed to bring this squash variety back.
Ultimately the choice is yours but if you haven’t tried seed saving yet, I encourage you to give it a go! It’s extremely satisfying to be able to continue planting each year without the need to purchase more seed.