“What should I buy: hybrid or heirloom seeds? Where should I buy seeds for spring?” ~ Bert from Bay City, Wisconsin
I am thrilled when friends reach out with gardening questions. I know that Bert has a “new” homestead in Bay City, Wisconsin, and he will be starting a garden in 2021. Bert is really interested in healing the land through using natural methods (compost, mulch, and natural fertilizers like comfrey or compost tea). He is also very interested in using what he has and being able to save seeds for the future, especially if we see empty grocery shelves in the future. Knowing all of this information helps me answer the questions effectively, but I digress.
Time to Gather Seeds
There are a lot of people who started gardening in 2020 out of panic and fear. Some were returning to the land for the first time since they were young. Others had an old garden out back that had gone to the weeds, and they were reactivating it when the shelves went empty. Many had never gardened before in their lives.
As they look out at their gardens in the snow up north or the dry weeds and grass in the Deep South (some were looking at snow this week in Texas), many are starting to think about the 2021 Garden Season.
Before we start planting, it is time to gather our seeds. It is just the right time to talk about Hybrid vs. Heirloom Seeds, give you some practical advice about what to purchase and where to purchase them.
To begin the discussion, we will focus first on Hybrid Seeds. Before we dive in and discuss these seeds, keep in mind that they aren’t “EVIL” seeds. Hybrid seeds are specialized seeds the breeders create from the two different, but similar, plants. The breeders are focusing on improving seeds so they are disease resistant (ie, downey mildew resistant basil), drought resistant, pest resistant, ripen earlier, are more vibrant and yield greater amounts. What’s not to love?
Chances are that those perfect tomatoes or other vegetables in the store are hybrids. There is a chance they were grown in a hydroponic system too, but we’ll talk to my friend Drew Demler about his hydroponic systems again soon enough!
Let’s face it: consumers, farmers, grocery stores, restaurants and other big corporations demand predictable yields and good looking produce to make their bottom lines shine and the world go around. That is why a lot of work goes into producing hybrid seeds! That is why farming is not left to Mother Nature alone!
For gardeners, especially those of us living in challenging environments (extremely cold/short season environments or extremely hot/dry environments), we need options to grow certain vegetables, herbs and plants. We need to use hybrid seeds that will survive the challenging environments or produce something before the frost and snow wipe out our crops. Yes, that happens in the Great White North as you can see in the following articles on Small Scale Life and Small Scale Gardening:
- 6 Lessons Learned from the End of My Garden Season (2019)
- First Frost: End of My 2018 Garden Season (2018)
- Extending the Garden Season: Frost Protection (2016)
- Garden Frost Protection…Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway (2014)
The bottom line is that hybrid seeds have a purpose and a use. We can use them effectively for areas with challenging environments. The main drawbacks to hybrid seeds are the following:
- They tend to be more expensive then heirloom seeds (more work goes into creating these seeds – lots of testing).
- If you save the seeds, you may not get the same plant the following season (it might not be quite the plant you had the year before).
Seed collection and seed saving has been going on since the dawn of time. The first villages started as our ancestors gathered seeds and cultivated crops. In order to have a crop the next year, our ancestors figured out they needed a seed crop, and they saved some of the seeds fort the next year.
This is the beauty and the advantage of heirloom, or open pollinated, seeds. If you use heirloom seeds and save them from the plants you grow or vegetables, fruit or herbs, you will find that the seeds produce true-to-type plants the next year.
This is HUGE!
This is why survivalists, preppers and homesteaders tend to gravitate to heirloom seeds. I can grow an heirloom variety of plants and keep some of the seeds for next year, plant those saved seeds and repeat the cycle. You are more self-reliant and sustainable, which ultimately reduces costs in the long run.
Julie still will refute me on that since I seem to buy seeds every year, but hey, this is why I have a Patreon for Small Scale Life! Subscribers are helping me afford my “seed addiction!” I digress.
We will cover seed saving techniques in future articles, but it really is not that difficult. For many fruits and vegetables, you are removing the seeds before you cook with it. You are literally removing the seeds and throwing them away or into your compost pile now. You COULD be saving some of those seeds for your future garden! I have done this and have some dill seeds from 2011 in my first garden in Illinois. Those dill seeds are STILL virulent producers!
Be advised: some types of heirlooms plants, like peppers, cucumbers and squash, can cross pollinate if more than one variety is grown in your garden. Those bees are great pollinators, and your plants will change with pollen from similar plants. This is called cross pollination, and it happens all the time.
If you want to save seeds from these vulnerable vegetables, you’ll need to make sure cross pollination doesn’t occur. To do that, you can do the following:
- Grow one variety of that type a season (one type of cucumber)
- Use distance to isolate varieties of plants (you are spacing them very far apart)
- Purchase and use insect barrier fabrics over the buds to prevent bees from cross pollinating the different varieties. This means you will have to hand pollinate with a Q Tip (which the mere mentions makes our friends howl with laughter – long story)
Not all is glittering gold with heirloom seeds! There are some disadvantages. The main one we run into in Zone 4B (Upper Midwest – Minnesota and Wisconsin) is the length of the growing season. In the Twin Cities, my growing season is effectively from May 11 (last frost) to October 10 (first frost).
Looking at my new zip code in Star Prairie, Wisconsin, I am going to have a little different growing season. It is going to stretch from April 30 (last frost) to October 6 (first frost). This coincides with my observations as I travel in rural areas: we will not have the heat from the concrete and asphalt to warm the earth. It could be colder out in the woods!
This is pretty accurate; just look at the articles from Small Scale Life and Small Scale Gardening listed earlier. It is about right on time!
The other disadvantages are that hybrid plants can handle more extreme climates, drought, pests and blight better than heirloom plants. You have to weigh this as you go into the season. Sometimes you plant something and know it might get blight, but you feel you can squeak out something from the plant before it succumbs. This is your judgment call at the start of the season, and there might be ways to counteract and treat pests and blight too!
Hybrid vs. Heirloom Seeds: Which One Should I Buy?
It all comes back to this question, doesn’t it?
Here is my true confession: if you zoom in on the picture, you will see both heirloom and hybrid varieties. I buy both! I am an equal opportunity gardener, and I have been known to save seeds from vegetables that I really like. For example, those little peppers from Sam’s Club or Aldi are great growers and tasty; just make sure you label the seeds and don’t mix them up! Been there; done that!
It does come down to cost, availability and curiosity/taste. I know certain tomatoes that I really like for canning salsa and tomato sauce (Amish Paste, Opalka Roma and San Marzano Tomatoes are all heirlooms). I know that certain cucumbers, peppers and basil that I plant and use are probably hybrids.
The beauty of gardening is that you have the opportunity to experiment and find things you like to grow, things you will eat (that is REALLY critical) and things that will fit in your Small Scale Garden. These are all considerations you must make before starting your garden planning process.
Where Should I Buy Seeds?
I think this is a topic for next time. If you are ready to roll right now and want heirloom seeds, I recommend shopping at Seed Savers Exchange or Baker Creek. I have had REALLY good luck with these two seed suppliers, and I will shop from them again.
If you want seeds right now and can’t wait for them to be shipped, you can always go to your local Lowes, Home Depot, Menards, Walmart or other big box store. They typically have Burpee seeds, and I have had good luck with them. It is typically a variety of hybrid seeds and heirloom seeds. Again, I am an equal opportunity gardener with a seed collecting habit!
Plan Ahead; Get Materials and Seeds
I hope this article helped you and filled in some of the gaps. If you want to learn a lot more about the seeds, order a seed catalog or browse the seed suppliers online. There is usually a ton of interesting and useful information there about the origin of the seeds, yield, days to maturity and other useful information.
One more thing: looking at the seed supplier websites, I note the delays in getting orders out. Don’t wait too long; get your planning done and order seeds. If we go into a lockdown, it might be difficult to get seeds and supplies. Think ahead, get materials, and order seeds.
Now is the time. Let’s learn, do and GROW together!