Is your favorite tomato or pepper an heirloom?
By Steve Boehme
Heirloom vegetable plants and seeds are all the buzz right now. Vegetable plants can be either “heirloom” or “hybrid.”
At least half the tomato and pepper plants and seeds we sell in our nursery are heirloom varieties. But what exactly is an heirloom vegetable, and why is it more desirable than a “hybrid” plant?
Plant hybridizing is the process of inventing new plants by combining the best qualities of other plants.
For example, commercial growers want tomatoes that can be picked green and ripen during shipping, while being hard enough not to bruise easily. Home gardeners prefer juicier varieties that ripen on the vine, with flavor being the most important feature. Plant breeders are constantly trying to satisfy these very different needs, by perfecting and introducing new varieties.
Many new varieties occur naturally by cross-pollination. Pollen is spread from plant to plant, mostly by bees. Genetic mutation also happens in nature, when “sports” (non-matching branches or fruits) spontaneously appear on plants. Breeders cross-pollinate under controlled conditions, or reproduce young plants by taking cuttings from sports and rooting them, to get predictable offspring. The process is a lot like raising pedigreed animals.
In order to fund their breeding programs, hybridizers patent their varieties for a certain period of years from when the plant is introduced, and charge a small royalty for each plant sold. Until the patent expires, raising a patented plant from seed or cuttings is actually a violation of patent law. Seeds from hybrid plants will often produce plants that aren’t the same as the parent.
Our definition of an heirloom plant is one that is no longer patented, with seed that will produce the identical plant if you save it from year to year. Some heirloom plants were actually patented hybrids when they were introduced, but their patent has expired. The important thing is that you can save the seed and get the same plant from it.
So why would you want a patented hybrid? The simple answer is that breeders may have improved the original in many ways, like disease resistance, yield, taste, attractiveness of the fruit, growth habit, drought tolerance and other traits. There are hybrids that are terrific for home gardens, and some that are better for commercial growers and shippers; you just have to learn which are which.
Heirloom varieties can taste better or different, or maybe not. There are good and not-so-good heirlooms.
Generally, heirloom plants yield about half as much fruit with the same amount of fertilizer, water and space in the garden. One reason to grow them is if we all grow only one variety, we are more vulnerable to massive crop failure from some new disease or insect. The more diverse our selection of food plants, the less risk from new pathogens wiping out an entire crop.
The other reason is you have better food security if you can save your seeds from year to year.
GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms,” are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants. These combinations of genes cannot occur in nature or with traditional breeding methods.
The main consumer benefit of GMOs is to reduce food prices by making farming more efficient. Most GMO food crops are engineered so that weed killers won’t kill them or have ingredients that will poison specific insects. This makes these crops much cheaper to grow commercially.
Experts disagree about GMO safety. Increasingly, Americans are taking a cautious approach and seeking out non-GMO seeds, plants and foods.
Most plants and seeds for home gardens are not GMOs. GoodSeed Nursery does not sell any GMO plants or seeds. We do have lots of heirloom and hybrid plants and seeds to choose from. If GMOs worry you, home vegetable gardening is a way you can be sure your food is absolutely safe.
Here’s a handy chart listing popular tomato and pepper plants. You’ll notice that most heirloom tomatoes are vine-type plants, meaning they need to be staked. Bush tomato plants are one example of hybridization.
If you study this list, you’ll see your favorites; probably many of them are hybrids, not heirlooms. Is that a bad thing? Ask yourself: Does your survival depend on saving your tomato and pepper seeds to plant next year?
Steve and his wife, Marjorie, own GoodSeed Nursery & Landscape near Winchester. Reach him at 937-587-7021 or visit www.goodseedfarm.com.