Hybrid seeds: NOT all bad

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    I’d like to clear up some potential confusion about terms used to describe seeds.

    [Added after a few comments to further clarify. Thanks, guys.] Some vegetables and fruits that we grow just are what they are– a particular variety. Tomatoes are tomatoes, but think of all the varieties of tomatoes! Many just are what they are. A brandywine tomato seed produces a brandywine tomato, inside which are seeds for the next generation of brandywine tomatoes, if we let nature do what she does.

    Hybrid: Hybrid seeds are NOT necessarily bad. Gardeners and horticulturists have been developing hybrid seeds for well over 100 years. Hybrid simply means that the seed is a result of crossing two different varieties (in some cases, species) of the same plant (or animal). Mules are hybrids (species). In the old West (at least the movies) the child of a white and an Indian was called a hybrid (think of these as two “varieties” of people). There’s nothing necessarily bad about mules or these people. Same for seeds, the plants they will become, or the fruit they will bear. In fact, many hybrids are more desirable than the “pure” strain or variety.

    Hybrids are developed to produce a plant that has characteristics of both the parental varieties. For example, suppose one variety of tomato has a natural resistance to tomato blight but small fruit, and another has no resistance but large fruit. If they cross-pollinate– if pollen is moved from one to the other– the seeds (actually the plants from the seeds) are hoped to be both resistant and have large fruit. What’s wrong with that? (The cocktail grapefruit I grow is a cross between a mandarin orange and a variety of grapefruit. It’s juicy & tasty.)

    The seeds from the fruit of hybrid varieties may or may not be fertile. (Two mules cannot conceive a mule but someone could be 1/4 Indian.) The reason folks don’t save the seeds from hybrid plants is because not all the seed will have hybrid characteristics. About 1/2 will. The other 1/2 will be about an equal mix of the original “pure” variety. If we crossed those resistant large tomatoes, 1/2 would be resistant large, 1/4 resistant small, 1/4 not resistant large. (Starting to recall biology class?)

    Heirloom: There are no set standards for what qualifies as an heirloom. Age of the variety is certainly one important factor, but most often “open pollenated” is the more important one. At bottom what is at issue is that the variety has remained pure or true for some amount of time– that today’s fruit and seed are identical to the seed from say 80 years ago.

    Varieties naturally come and go. Unfortunately, when talking about vegetables they mostly go because they’ve been lost. The seed companies stopped growing and selling them (Big Boy, Better Boy, Bigger Better), and the old seed-saving farmers died.

    GMO: IMHO genetically modified organisms are bad for a number of reasons. In GMOs varieties’ and species’ genomes have been artificially tinkered with, and Mother Nature hasn’t been given the opportunity to weed out the ones carrying undesirable (harmful) characteristics.

    Heirloom vs. Hybrid? Remember that some hybrids have been around for years and years. Know too that many folks will tell you heirlooms are harder to grow than hybrids because of disease resistance and the like. (I haven’t had this experience at all.) I want to caution folks here– especially new gardeners: please do NOT get caught up in the heirloom craze just because you want to be a purist or whatever. Please do buy heirloom seed! But if this is your first go at a garden, I’d much rather see you be successful than pure! Buying Early Girl Tomato seeds (hybrid) and growing your own Early Girls is a better, cheaper, healthier thing to do (again, my opinion) than buying a boat load of tomatoes at the farmers’ market for putting up sauce. Buying tomatoes at the market is better than the big chain. Putting up sauce no matter where you get the tomatoes is better than buying it in a can.

    And now that I think about it, buying seedlings is o.k., too! And of course, seedling from a farmers’ market are better than those from Home Depot… .

    Just grow it!

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