A Journey to Grow a Little Food Close to Home

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Heirloom vs Organic...vs Hybrid

Ok readers...this is going to be a 'must read.'

I've had several conversations and questions in the past few weeks about the differences between heirloom and organic plants. I'm going to offer a quick summary here that should clarify things.

Let me, though, say this: Organic and Heirloom ARE NOTthe same thing.

To start with, let's talk about genetics!

If you happen to find yourself with 2 Labrador Retrievers and you allow them to...er...make babies, you will get...

You guessed it - Labrador Retrievers!

If you have 2 poodles and you do the same thing, you will get...poodles!

If, though, you have one Lab and one Poodle, and you breed them, you would get a...


How does this work with plants?

If you have one particular tomato plant that you keep breeding, say...a Brandywine, you will continuously have Brandywines. If you carefully protect the genetics and don't allow them to mix for somewhere between 50 and 100 years (the jury is still out on this one), you will have an HEIRLOOM variety.

If you mix two different kinds of tomatoes, though, you get a HYBRID.

Why is hybridization done? Usually it's to isolate a desired trait, like early production (Early Girl Tomato), plant reliability (Better Boy Tomato), flavor (Beefsteak tomato), or harvest time consistency (Roma tomato...used in Heinz Catsup).

Is there a problem, then, with hybrids?

If you want to buy plants every year, stick them in the ground, and know that you'll have a fairly successful harvest...no...there is nothing wrong with hybrids!

If, though, you'd like to cut one or two of those Early Girl tomatoes open at the end of the year, pull the seeds out, and dry&save them to plant next year...yes...there would be HUGE proble with hybrids!!!


Most hybrid veggies that we can get are known as F1 or Filial Generation One. This means that the seed or plant is the result of just one Lab/Poodle mix.

The thing with genetics, though, is that they are SLOW to change. Once the hybrid plant grows and produces seeds, the seeds don't really want to be hybrid any more.

So... if you plant the seeds that you saved from your Early Girl, some of the plants that grow will look like one parent, some will look likethe other parent, some will be quite deformed, and just a small few MIGHT look like Early Girls.

There are also F2 and F3 hybrids. F2s result from breeding two F1 Early Girls. F3s result from breeding 2 F2 Early Girls. This is where the genetics get tricky. If 2 parents are chosen for flavor, an F1 is created. If 2 different parents are chosen for reliability, a second F1 is created. If these two F1s are bread to make an F2, the F2 would have 4 genetic lines. If this process is repeated a second time, another F2 would be created. When both of those F2s are bred, the resulting F3 might be an overall superior plant but would have 8 genetic lines within it and, as the consumers, we could never replicate this if we tried to save the seeds for the following year. This means that our plants that we grew from saved seeds could look REALLY wierd and might not produce all that well.

Some thing important to remember this that ALL plants on Earth are hybrids. Unless you grow a plant in a sealed box, mixing if genetic material WILL happen through pollination. When I said, though, that genetic change happens slow, what I meant was that the genetics of hybrids will eventually stabilize so that seed that is saved will grow well the next year. The only way to stabilize the hybrid, though, is time...lots of time!

The Early Girl has been on the market since about 1975, or for 36 years (generations). Each year, the plant is re-hybridized in order to force its genetics to remain identical.

The Brandywine tomato has been on the market since about 1885, or 126 years (generations). During that time, it has been allowed to adapt to changing conditions and has been allowed to evolve naturally as it aquires additional genetic traits through natural cross-pollination.

Notice that I haven't talked about organic at all.

This is because organic refers to HOW something is grown (as opposed to heirloom and hybrid which refer to WHAT is grown). Either heirloom or hybrid plants can be grown organically...that is - without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The question that you need to ask yourself when buying seed/plants is what you are ok with growing.

Hybrids have more uniform flavor and shape and are typically easier to grow. You don't know, though, what plants have been mixed in order to get the hybrid and you won't be able to make a 1-time seed investment - you'll have to buy new seed/plants each year.

Heirlooms can vary in their flavor and shape (I personally like the fact that they are 'more interesting') and are more difficult to grow (read: they need to be loved). For that, though, you can know that the varieties have a long history and you'll be able to save seed and use it again the next year.

Either way, try to make the move to growing organically - the reason that we garden in the first place is to put fewer chemicals into our bodies!

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