Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 25 years experience in radio, television, print
With all the vegetable choices out there, deciding what to plant can be daunting, especially if you don't know your heirlooms from your hybrids. So, what's the difference?
In short, heirloom varieties are old-fashioned plants that produce old-fashioned vegetables, just as God made them. They're grown from seeds that have been collected and saved from generation to generation, and the plants those seeds produce today are the same as the ones your grandmother grew.
If you were to plant heirloom tomatoes, for instance, you could save seeds produced by those plants and use them in your garden the next season and rest assured that the tomatoes produced from those seeds would be identical to their parents. Planting true heirlooms also guarantees your seeds and plants haven't been genetically modified.
Although they remain in their natural form, heirloom varieties are far from boring. They're prized for their superior flavor, but that's not their only selling point -- there are some very unusual heirloom varieties to choose from. In addition to traditional red heirloom tomatoes, you'll also find purple, orange, yellow, pink, green, and even black ones. Personally, I find the black ones, which actually are murky red with some dark green or brown mixed in, unappetizing, but there's no denying they're tasty.
Heirlooms can be hard to find, however, and some aren't even available commercially. That's because they typically have some qualities that make them less than lucrative at the retail level: One variety might have a short shelf life, another might be super-susceptible to disease or take too long to ripen. But there are some catalogs that deal exclusively in heirlooms, most notably the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog (417-924-8917; rareseeds.com).
Hybrids, on the other hand, do not grow true from seed. That means if you buy seeds or starter plants for a hybrid tomato and collect seeds from the fruit they produce, you'll be sorely disappointed. Hybrid plants are a cross between two or more varieties, and the seeds they produce haven't been crossed. Instead, those seeds will likely match one of the parents, not the plant they came from. You certainly can save and plant the seeds, and they'll grow; they just won't produce plants with the same traits as the hybrid.
Plants are hybridized for different reasons. Say there's an especially delicious heirloom tomato that happens to be highly susceptible to blight. A hybridizer might cross that plant with one that's resistant to the disease to create a new variety that embodies the best qualities of both plants. Gardeners like this because it makes growing them easier, and many are willing to sacrifice flavor or juiciness for convenience.
It's important not to confuse hybrids with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Those are seeds whose DNA has been "engineered" with the introduction of a foreign gene. That gene could be from something natural, like another plant, insect or bacteria, or something synthetic, like a chemical herbicide. There's some controversy surrounding GMO plants, though the FDA has approved several, including corn and alfalfa.
Hybrids, on the other hand, are simply a cross between two different plants. There's no controversy surrounding hybridized vegetables. In fact, crossbreeding often occurs naturally when windblown pollen from one variety pollinates another.
I like to grow heirlooms and hybrids. It's always fun to try old varieties that are new to me, and I relish the scents and flavors of years gone by. But I'm not one to scoff at the disease resistance, consistency and reliability created by skilled hybridizers, either. In fact, every year I plant one edible I've never grown before. Some do well (like last year's corn), while others don't (like the mangled carrots I grew in 2009), but I find the successes and failures have less to do with whether the plants are heirlooms or hybrids, and more to do with the growing conditions.
Give a new variety a try this year; you just might stumble upon a new -- or old -- favorite.