Home > Great Big Greenhouse Blog > January 2015 > BONNIE'S GARDEN--Heirlooms, Hybrids, GMO's

BONNIE'S GARDEN--Heirlooms, Hybrids, GMO's

I talked to a customer over the weekend who was concerned about buying a packet of seeds that said it was a “hybrid.”  She thought that “hybrid” meant the same as GMO (genetically modified).  I explained that they are two entirely different things. 

Hybridization occurs when two different plants are bred to produce an offspring which contains traits from both parents.  For example:  A farmer grows a tomato that is a great producer, but the tomatoes are small and not very flavorful.  He also grows a tomato that has big flavorful fruit but is not a great producer.  He pollinates the flowers from the first variety with pollen from the second variety; plants those seeds; chooses those offspring that have the qualities he’s looking for and breeds them.  After a generation (or two or ten) he comes up with a tomato that is both flavorful AND a great producer.

While hybrids can naturally occur in nature or can be easily crossed in the field, GMO’s are created using high-tech methods that alter a plant’s DNA is a way that could not occur in nature.  They may involve gene-splicing or even inserting genetic matter from a non-related species—hence the infamous Bt corn, which produces a toxin to kill ear worms (what happens to that toxin when the corn is eaten, I wonder.)

Hybrids can offer a degree of disease resistant and vigor that some heirlooms cannot.  The problem is that the seeds from the offspring will usually revert back to a parent.  They are not genetically stable, meaning they won’t breed true to type, so you cannot save them from year to year but must buy new seeds.  The companies that hold their patents can control their production—and their price—a big concern if you’re a farmer.

Heirloom seeds are those that have been saved by local farmers and gardeners and have been passed down for generations.  Can hybrids be heirlooms?  Yes, if they are generations-old stable hybrids.  Heirlooms must be either open-pollinated or self-pollinating, meaning they are pollinated through natural methods (such as insects, birds, and wind) and will still breed true to their parents.  The seeds can be saved and re-planted for years to come with consistent results.  Heirlooms offer a vast reservoir of genetic diversity—making them more adaptable to different growing conditions with a wide range of flavor, sizes and shapes.  Many gardeners agree that the finest flavors come from heirloom vegetables.  Heirloom tomatoes--like Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, German Johnson, etc.--are consistent winners at tomato taste trials.

My garden is a mix of both heirloom and hybrid vegetables.  My favorite slicing tomato, hands-down, is an heirloom-variety called Cherokee Purple.  My favorite cherry tomato is a hybrid called Sun Gold (or a sister-seedling called Sun Sugar).  And I always tuck in a Better Boy hybrid for its disease resistance.  None of the seed companies that I deal with here (Botanical Interests, Burpee, or Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) sell GMO seeds so you and I can at least plant our favorite varieties knowing no one has tinkered with their DNA.
Posted: 1/19/2015 by Bonnie Pega | with 0 comment(s)
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