When I first got into vegetable gardening and started looking at seed catalogs, I kept running into two terms over and over:
“Heirloom” and “hybrid.”
Apart from knowing that “heirloom” generally means “old” and “valuable,” and “hybrid” generally denotes a special DNA cocktail of two or more organisms, I had no idea what the difference between the two were.
After a fair amount of research and growing both, here’s what I’ve learned.
What’s a hybrid?
A fruit or vegetable that’s a hybrid contains genes that are spliced from various “donor” species that have desirable traits.
Let’s say Tomato A is drought resistant, Tomato B is downright delicious, and for whatever reason, Tomato C doesn’t attract pests like all the other tomatoes. Somewhere along the way, some humans had an idea: if they could create a tomato that had all three of these qualities, and sell it to commercial growers, they could make a lot of money.
The profit margins at commercial farms are often razor-thin—they can’t afford anything less than an outstanding harvest. So these farmers buy hybrid seeds and get big, lovely tomatoes that can withstand dry summers, taste great, and aren’t affected by common pests.
After a while, hybrid seeds became available to home growers as well. After all, no one likes putting in a bunch of work in the garden, only to be confronted with failure—not even hobby gardeners.
Some advantages to hybrids
- Hybrids are less expensive. You’d think that seeds specially created in a lab would be on the pricier side, but that’s not the case. They’re actually a little cheaper.
- Hybrids encourage you to experiment. Since you’re not saving seed, you don’t feel obligated to plant the same variety next year. That means you’ll have space to try something new next time around.
- Hybrids can be purchased to suit your environment. Rainfall less than dependable in your area during the summer? You can get a variety that’s drought tolerant.
Some disadvantages to hybrids
- Hybrid seeds don’t breed true in the next generation. Love the tomatoes you grew this year? Sorry, you can’t save save the seed to regrow that same tomato next year. All the genes that were used to create it unravel and traits that were dominant become recessive. Maybe the result you get is sort of drought resistant like Tomato A, but it has none of the sweetness of Tomato B, and there’s no hint of Tomato C in it because all of your seedlings are being eaten alive by pests.
- Hybrid seeds can contain kill genes. This sounds awful, but really it’s just annoying. Seed producers use it so you can’t save seed from one season to the next, and have to buy it instead. Once germination is triggered, the kill gene hits the self-destruct button. It won’t explode in your seed starting pots, but it definitely won’t grow.
- Hybrids might not taste as good. While some hybrids are bred specifically for flavor, many are bred purely for production volume. This means taste can go by the wayside. If taste is important to you, buy a hybrid that emphasizes taste as one of the foremost qualities. A good example of this is the Sun Gold Hybrid cherry tomato—they’re one of the sweetest around.
What’s an heirloom?
Heirloom fruits and veggies often seem to fit into one of two categories: Miss Universe and Miss Congeniality.
The former are absolutely gorgeous—they come in stunning shapes, colors or patterns, like the Moon and Stars watermelon. Then there’s the latter—these won’t win any beauty pageants, but what they lack in the looks department, they usually make up for in flavor.
An heirloom seed is one that has been passed down for decades, maybe even centuries, from one season to the next. It’s open pollinated, meaning whether it self-pollinates, or is cross-pollinated with pollen from another plant—a cucumber from another mother?—it will still produce true (or nearly so) to what the mother fruit/vegetable was like.
And just like there’s lots of different varieties of hyrbids, there are lots of different varieties of heirlooms.
Some advantages to heirlooms
- Heirlooms are scrappy. Whatever resistances they’ve developed to drought, disease or pests, they’ve developed naturally via evolution. So, in general, heirlooms are hardy plants. They wouldn’t have survived all those years if they weren’t.
- Heirlooms are tasty. Because they don’t sacrifice flavor for looks like hybrids, heirlooms often taste better than their grocery store counterparts.
- Heirlooms can be more nutritious. This might not be true of all fruits and veggies, but some heirlooms have more nutritional value than hybrids.
Some disadvantages to heirlooms
- The seeds are a little more expensive. Seed savers and heirloom seed sellers treat their seeds like treasure. And really, they kind of are when there’s hundreds of years of history inside them. So you’ll pay a little bit more for them, but you can also save them year after year, so in the end you probably save money.
- You don’t get as many seeds per packet. Kind of for the same reason above. They’re not mass produced, so they’re not sold in mass quantities.
- They might not be as pretty (i.e., normal looking). Heirlooms can get kind of funky looking. But you know what they say: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
So which is better, hybrids or heirlooms?
It depends on what’s more important to you.
In general, I choose heirloom seeds for my garden. I love the history and the idea that each fruit could look completely different from the next. And I love that I can save the seeds for next year, if I want.
But no matter which you choose, you’re still growing your own food and seeing how it all works. So try not to get too caught up or angsty about which is better. Just pick one and grow.
Have your own opinions on hybrids vs. heirlooms? Sound off on the topic in the comments below.