One of these things is not like the other: Hybrid versus heirloom

In the world of gardening, particularly vegetable gardening, there is a raging debate – heirloom versus hybrid.   It is a subtle one that has been overshadowed by that whole organic versus chemical debate (which is so fierce it can occasionally cause sharp cutlery to be pulled out at respectable gardening clubs around the world).

Heirloom versus hybrid. Nature versus nurture. Vinyl versus download. Edward versus Jacob.

And it can get confusing, especially for a new gardener, whose only exposure to the word “hybrid” thus far is shortly followed by the words “save the planet, buy now, zero percent interest financing available”.   Hybrid is best, right?

And here is where the debate rages. It is a healthcare debate in a two party garden system. Which is better, hybrid vegetables or heirloom vegetables?  And before you assume I am firmly on one side or the other, I will let you know that I am not.

First, let’s define the issue.

Hybrid vegetables are generally regarded as newer varieties that were bred specifically for mass consumption and for certain mass interest traits. Things like disease resistance, superior production and even an inability to reproduce can be bred into hybrid varieties.

Heirloom varieties are generally over 100 years old and have been bred for local cultivation. They are often bred for color, flavor, size and local weather condition resilience.

So which is better?  Just like your religious affiliation or favorite color, it is really, really a personal decision.

I personally do grow mostly heirlooms, but I normally throw a few hybrids in there as a failsafe.  As mentioned, hybrids are bred to survive and heirlooms are bred to please.   Give me a good heirloom tomato any day, but I have to say that I do look with some longing across the fence at my firmly hybrid growing neighbor’s garden every summer and envy her superior production. In my mind, heirloom versus hybrid is more of a quality versus quantity issue. Both have merit.

Yes, hybrids have squeezed out the heirloom varieties in terms of what people produce. In their corner, hybrids have a multi-million dollar industry lobbying for it while heirlooms are a grass roots effort. Industrial production stomping firmly on the old ways.

But, you also have to consider that there is a survival of the fittest factor going on here.  No matter how you cut it, for your average home gardener, hybrids just perform better.

I think that we as gardeners need to find a balance. Make space in the garden to save history while still enjoying modern advancements. Think of it as playing Mozart on your iPod.   The two can coexist.

18 thoughts on “One of these things is not like the other: Hybrid versus heirloom
  1. great way to put it.
    I’m brand new to this gardening thing & have been wondering.
    thanks for the info…
    .-= Kasie ´s last blog daddy =-.


  2. Mary on

    This is my fourth year gardening and I’m not very good at it. I tried an heirloom tomato last year and I had such a hard time keeping it healthy. Meanwhile, my hybrid tomatoes had a, personal, record breaking season. I would like to grow heirlooms for lots of reasons but I think I’m going to have to be a better gardner before I have success with them. Thanks for the info, Mary


    Kay Reply:

    The heirloom you tried may not have been suited to your climate. Don’t give up, just try a different variety. For example, I can’t grow Brandywines where I am but Cherokee Purples thrive in my area. Just try a couple each year until you find the one that works in your yard. 🙂


  3. You forgot one glaring difference. Hybrids do not come back true to type from seed. So if you grow hybrids you can’t seed save. If the heirlooms go away you may some day have no choice but to buy hybrids from a company like Monsanto, at which point they will likely all be genetically modified as well.


  4. I have also noticed that buying area specific heirlooms really helps. So for me that means buying heirloom tomatoes that have done well in Virginia for years and naturally have a little better chance, instead of buying tomatoes that have historically done well in California or florida.


  5. The truth is, Washington State is not tomato country, so most of our debate is philosophical (unless the brakes quit when the accelerator imps are having fun). Philosophically I think Monsanto (whom I have never met personally) is evil. But tomatoes that survive when everyone else’s turns black is good. Still, I keep trying with the heirlooms. When philosophy hits the salad bowl I do a dance of joy and try not to call all my gardening friends because there is probably only one ripe tomato and I want it. If I am frying green tomatoes, then all can come to dinner and have a debate.

    Debs…. trying to stay warm at 58 (while your temp widget is bragging that you are at 80)


    Hanna Reply:

    I think when it comes to trying heirlooms, Jessica hit it on the head.

    They were bred for local weather so you need to find heirlooms for your local climate. unfortunatly, the big box store approach and even some of the smaller nurseries who buy from chain greenhouses, is that you can sell heirlooms like you do hybrids. You can find about 10 common heirlooms all over the the country now, but really these “wholesale” varieties are not suited to where exactly you live (no matter where you live), so they do no good.

    Debs, you may want to give Russian and Siberian (yes, that Siberia, as in frozen prison land of former USSR) heirlooms a try. They were developed for cold weather tolerance and there are even a few that can take light frost. I believe a variety called Stupice is like this.

    But, on the same note, you and I are on the same page. The end result is we want end results and if hybrids can do that, then more power to using them.


    Deborah Hagerty Reply:

    Net! (that is the only Russian I know and it isn’t what I want to say) What I mean to say with a forced accent is, “Thank you so much for taking the time to help.”

    I have Stupice’s sister, Siltz. I also have Black Plum Paste. Holding out hope for Oregon Spring, not so much for Persimmon (a local recommendation–IF all the stars line up and can get through a hole in the clouds, it is good for the PNW), Cherokee Purple, Black Prince (or something like that) and Brandywine just because a neighbor insists that it is the best PNW tomato he has ever grown. I think he is getting a bit daft, but it is in my garden, so who is the daft one? It has been an EXTREEMLY cold and wet June. But hey, my peas and greens are amazing!


  6. Carol on

    I’ve not found heirlooms to be much fussier than the hybrids… so i think a beginning gardener would be ok with some of them. Here in Iowa i find Cherokee Purple to be very prolific and easy to grow. I also love the taste of Black Krim but it isn’t very prolific. I don’t save seeds, so buy them heirloom seeds from others. I am excited to try a true family heirloom given to me by my boss this year.


  7. Katherine Isham on

    I usually like the heirlooms, but that’s largely because I live in the northeast where the weather has a mind of it’s own, and having veggies bred for the area is a plus. X) So I usually try and pick heirloom varieties that are cold-hardy… though I’m certainly not above getting a hybrid if it tolerates crazy weather!


  8. Ever think we as a society and as gardeners have become accustomed to bumper tomato crops, leaving longstanding heirlooms in the dust? Buy any tomato plant for the previous 20-odd years at a nursery or garden center, 99% were hybrids. And so, now that heirloom toms are dusting themselves off, the poor crop and disease resistance reputation is rearing it’s ugly reputation again. So, please be kinder to heirlooms. They may not produce as well as hybrids, but they do stay true to their lucious individuality.


  9. P B on

    I agree with Nathan; you can’t save seeds from hybrid and get the same results, while with heirloom varieties you can be completely self sufficient. I have started growing veggies this year for the first time, and most of them are heirloom, purchased from a company that sells exclusively heirloom seeds they have tested in my country (rainy, cold UK). They have all done great, so I expect that the key is to choose the right variety for your climate. I have a handful of F1s, either because they were given to me or because I couldn’t find an heirloom variety, but the advantages at this point are not that evident. The F1 lettuce germinated a bit earlier than the heirloom varieties, but they caught up and taste better. The heirloom tomatoes are the same size as the F1, and both look healthy and are setting fruit within one week from each other.
    I believe it’s important to keep heirloom seeds going, in order not to become slaves to the likes of Monsanto for our food growing needs.


  10. I absolutely agree, there is a place for both. To say one should only grow heirloom, or open-pollinated (there is a difference) varieties strikes me as a bit elitist. Whether a variety is a hybrid or not is never my first concern – taste and performance are. I grow mostly heirloom tomatoes because I like them the best. And I want open-pollinated beans and peas if I plan to save seed. Some of them are heirlooms, again, grown because I prefer the taste.


  11. Oregon Panda on

    I think the main thing that is being forgotten mostly because you are all gardeners, is that mono crops are the scourge of the planet. I believe them to be the sole reason for the sharp decline in bees.

    You as gardeners are thinking “Well my garden has plenty of diversity.”

    As true as that may “bee”, the fact of the matter is Monsanto is the superpower it is because of mass scale mono croppers. Your buying their seeds and using their pesticides only further promotes the destruction of the human race and all living things on the planet as a whole.

    There is no gray area in this matter, your supporting an evil superpower if you buy GMO, petroleum products, or from anyone else who fits into the profits before people line of thinking.

    I will continue to live my life and lead by example. May you all realize the errors we have made as a whole before its too late.


    Hanna Reply:

    I think also too many people confuse hybrid with GMO. They are not the same. Hybrids are patented cross breeds (been around since before DNA manipulation was even possible), while GMO are scientifically altered at a DNA level.


  12. I prefer the self-sufficiency angle of heirlooms. But I grow a mix of the two, plus direct seed and buy from several different nurseries all as a failsafe. What I’ve had the most trouble with, and refuse to use now, are organic seeds. I don’t know what they do to those seeds but I can’t get them to grow no matter if I direct seed or start indoors.


  13. chuckA on

    Just wanted to add; there’s a lot of companies out there that are rumored to be selling seed and labeling it as hybrid to discourage the consumer from saving seeds.

    Burpee comes to mind.
    I’ve heard of several gardeners saving Biker Billy Jalapeno seeds and they end up growing true the next year.


    Dog Island Farm Reply:

    Watch what you say about Burpee! One of their PR people came to my blog and scolded me when I mentioned that they buy seed from a company owned by Monsanto. I didn’t take it down. LOL

    It kind of goes with the GMO thing though. Yes, GMOs and hybrids are different, however nowadays, a lot of seed companies that sell to the public (Burpee, Johnny’s, etc) get seed from companies that create GMOs so in buying hybrid seed you are helping support and fund the creation of GMOs.


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