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Sage Garden Blog

Seeds: OP vs. Heirloom vs. Hybrid

Hey gardeners, its that time of the year: seed frenzy! This weekend Winnipeg hosts our local pre-spring rite, known as Seedy Saturday, which is a real grass-roots gathering of excited gardeners. The event features a seed exchange, local seed houses and other down-to-earth gardening businesses, as well as free workshops. And there is always a special kind of buzz (seed catalogs and web resources definitely get gardeners perky, while actually being with seeds and other real-life gardeners takes it up a notch!).

As we get ready for Seedy Saturday, I thought it might be a good opportunity to answer a common question we hear, “what are heirloom vs. open pollinated vs. hybrid seeds?”

Open Pollinated (OP) Seeds
Mullein plant with bee, at Sage Garden

As long as the winds have blown, bees have buzzed and plants have flowered, we have had open pollinated seeds. These are seeds that come from the natural pollination of plants, typically those that are fairly similar to one another. Plants grown from open pollinated seeds can vary quite a bit, due to the uncontrolled nature of natural pollination, but can also be quite stable when the plants are isolated from other genetic influences (i.e. pollen from related but non identical plants). Growers raising OP selections for seed production follow guidelines for crop spacing, to ensure the reliability and consistency of the seed line.

Open pollinated seeds are not simply wild; in fact selection of open pollinated crops with desirable characteristics has been tremendously important to the history of human food production and security. However, the key characteristic (and benefit) of open pollinated seed is that the plants can reliably be reproduced, generation to generation, from seed saved from the current crop.

Heirloom Seeds

Persimon tomato, a wonderful heirloom

There is no single definition of heirloom seeds, but there are two main qualities fundamental to all definitions. First, heirloom seeds are by nature open-pollinated, and can reliably be saved by the grower to reproduce similar future crops. Second, heirloom seeds are preserved across time due to unique and (typically) desirable qualities. Many times heirloom seeds are regional, even hyper-local selections that have specifically been saved, often inter-generationally. One popular definition of heirloom references seeds that were in cultivation before the beginning of modern hybrid seeds, which is generally considered pre-1950’s.

The main benefit of heirloom seeds is in their diversity, which yields a very wide range of traits (superb flavour, interesting colours, short season adaptation etc). Among other things this can make growing heirloom varieties a lot of fun, in all their colourful, sometimes imperfect quirkiness. Importantly, heirloom seeds can be saved by the grower, with out having to rely on re-purchasing the seed year-to-year. Heirloom seed preservation has become a priority for many gardeners looking to preserve regional qualities and diversity in the plants we grow.

Hybrid Seeds

Ultra hot peppers are often hybrids

Technically hybridization is a completely natural process, and one which allows plants to mix-it-up, leading to the evolution and adaptation of plants in nature. Hybridization, in the broadest sense, is the outcome of cross pollination, which of course happens non-stop and somewhat randomly in the wild.

However, hybridization under the influence of the human hand is distinct from natural cross pollination. Modern hybridization involves carefully selecting parent plants that are quite different from one another, with the goal of producing seedlings with qualities that are better - possibly much better - than those found in either parent alone. This is called hybrid vigour, and the benefits of this phenomenon can include significant disease resistance and much heavier yields. Human created hybrids are indicated by F1 (or other iterations, such as F2 where the hybrid involves multiple generations to yield the desired traits). 

Modern agriculture has relied on hybrid seed for the promise of feeding a growing world population, but has been rightly criticized due to the subversion of altruistic goals by corporate control and greed: after all hybrid seeds cannot be saved and grown out the next season, they must be re-purchased from the seed companies. Furthermore, hybrid seed lines often focus on a limited range of desirable traits at the expense of others, for example disease resistance or shelf-life over flavour. Commercial hybridization has resulted in a loss of bio-diversity.

In spite of the controversies surrounding modern hybrid seeds, it is also important to point out that there can be genuine benefits to growing hybrid selections, and some crops (for example grapefruits) would not exist with out hybridization. Recently, there has been a significant focus on the introduction of hybrid seeds for organic producers, with special attention paid to selecting for a combination of grower friendly, chemical free and consumer friendly traits. A common misunderstanding is the mixing-up of hybrid and GMO concepts, two unrelated methods of influencing the characteristic of plants. GMO involves the mingling of inter-species DNA, something that cannot happen in nature (and unfortunately has the potential to stray into “bystander” crops grown near GMO crops). While GMO seeds are not found in the home gardener market, they definitely are the brainchild of several large seed and chemical companies that also sell popular home-gardener selections. Celebrity tomato is a very good example of this. In addition, it is possible, in a world where GMO crops are starting to prevail in large agriculture, that home gardener seed can become contaminated by GMO’s; corn and soya beans would be two vulnerable crops that cross over between big ag and home gardens. At Sage, look for our seeds with the Non GMO Verified icon, meaning the seeds have been screened for GMO contamination, and passed.

This Saturday we hope you can come and experience the joy of seeds, in all of its diversity. If you have any thoughts or questions on the different types of seeds discussed above, we would love to chat.

Seedy Saturday runs 10 - 3 at the Canadian Mennonite University, North Campus. Entry is by donation. If you have extra (viable) seeds at home, bring a few packs to swap out in the seed exchange... or even if you don’t the organizers have said visitors can take up to three packs without exchanging... see what I mean about grass-roots! This one’s for you, dear gardener.

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