Vegetable Gardening 101: Seeds – Hybrid and Heirloom


There are both advantages and disadvantages with heirloom and hybrid seeds. Personally I only use heirloom seeds. I will explore a few of the basic differences between the two.

Heirloom seeds are open pollenated which means the seeds can be saved. The saved seeds, when replanted will produce the same plant that they were collected from. Thus saving you lots of money every year if you decide to save your own seeds! Hybrid seeds are pollenated by “man” (this is a rather complicated process the link below explains it better than I can). You can save the seeds from hybrid plant, however the plant that may or may not grow from it will most certainly not have all the characteristics of the plant the seeds were harvested from. Some hybrid plants are bred to produce sterile seeds, forcing the consumer to buy new seed every year.

Heirloom seeds have survived the test of time, if you are able to do the research a lot of them have great stories telling how they made it to the U.S.. Hybrids, well, test tubes and labs just aren’t a great story to me.

With our dependence on grocery stores to obtain our fresh fruits and vegetables hybrids were developed to fit the bill. Hybrids are bred to grow produce that can be picked well before its ripe, stored for long term and gassed to ripen, then shipped. Produce picked before it’s ripe will be short a great deal of nutrition. Hybrids, even vine ripened, are lacking flavor and nutrition that it’s heirloom counterparts can offer.

The variety that heirlooms offer is AMAZING!! Tomatoes are often the first thing that comes to mind for people when they hear “heirloom”  and they are a great example. How many hybrid tomatoes do you find in any other color than red? Have you ever tried a black tomato? or yellow? or fire (yellow and red striped)? or green even when it’s ripe? Of those colors there are a ton of different varieties! Now look into peppers, potatoes, beans, onions and every other vegetable you want to plant. I now have to limit myself to 5 varieties of carrots- Cosmic Purple, Atomic Red, Danver 126 Half Long, Amarillo, and Lunar Whites. My kid will probly be the only one in his class telling the teacher carrots are purple!

Depending on your garden harvesting and storage methods having all your tomatoes ripen at once, as most hybrids do, could be a blessing or a curse. Heirlooms tend to ripen at different intervals, making it more manageable to can, dehydrate or process to freeze the harvest. Canning a bushel of beans a couple times is less exhausting than canning all six bushels in a day or two. Most hybrids were developed to ripen at the same time for commercial growers.

Uniformity is another difference between hybrids and heirlooms. Hybrids are made to produce uniform shape, and size, for ease of shipping and sale. Heirlooms will come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. This adds to the appeal of the heirloom as far as I’m concerned.

I used to think growing heirlooms took something special. Certain conditions in the soil, weather and who knows what else. I soon found this to be far from true, in fact growing heirlooms is just as easy if not easier than growing hybrids. They key to growing heirlooms is the same with any seed, it’s just a matter of finding the variety that grows well in your growing zone. There are a couple ways to do this; ask neighbor gardeners if they save seeds and they would be willing to share. Another way takes a little more work, research the origin of the variety you are wanting to grow. If it originated in the tropics and you are having a hard time getting it to produce in the Midwest you may need to rethink things; maybe a greenhouse or look into a different variety. Experiment with different varieties to see what you like best and will produce well for you.

This link has an easy to understand explanation of how hybrid are “made”.

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  1. I’m planning to plant a mix of hybrid and heirloom seeds. I’m excited to plant some grafted black Krim tomatoes. The flavor on those is divine and my hope is that the rootstock will help it overcome the disease issues it can have. I’m also planning some purple carrots and gherkin pickles! Can’t wait for spring!