Heirloom vegetable seeds

If you’re a new gardener, you might wonder which type of seed is best to plant in your garden. Should you plant heirloom seeds or hybrid seeds? Are open-pollinated seeds best? And what’s the difference? Let’s start by taking a quick look at the modernization of agriculture and how monoculture farming has impacted our seed selection.

Over the last century, agricultural practices changed dramatically. Although these changes included an increase in crop yields, biodiversity in agriculture has plummeted due to the homogenization of crop portfolios. From 1903 to 1983, we lost 93% of different varieties of food seeds. We had over 300 sweet corn varieties at the turn of the century but by 1983, that number was reduced to just 12. Squash, radishes, cucumbers, radishes, and other crops have had similar fates, as illustrated in the following visual.

Crop diversity loss from hybridization
Image source, credit: John Tomanio, National Geographic

One of the main drivers for this was hybridization. As seed companies focused on developing the most reliably productive seed, farmers abandoned less predictable crops. If a farmer didn’t save seeds from the older “heritage” varieties, they eventually disappeared and were replaced by hybrid varieties.

What Are Hybrid Seeds?

By cross-pollinating two different varieties of a plant, scientists can develop a new plant with the best traits of each parent plant. Hybrid varieties were originally developed to provide farmers with larger yields and a more predictable harvest. However, the farmer could not save seeds from the hybrid plants to grow the next year’s crop and expect to get the same results.

Red tomatoes growing on the vine
Hybrid seeds tend to produce larger yields and a more predictable harvest, but you may find the results less flavorful.

Similarly, if you grow hybrids in your garden, you cannot save their seeds and have them grow true to type. For example, if you grew an award-winning hybrid tomato plant last year and saved the seeds, you would likely not get the same results this year. To get the desired characteristics of the hybrid plant, you need to purchase new seeds. The hybridization of crops makes gardeners and farmers dependent on seed companies because saving seeds from hybrid plants is a gamble.

What Are Heirloom Seeds?

These are the seeds that farmers and gardeners have saved from their crops and passed down from generation to generation. Heritage seeds come from crop varieties that are at least 40 or 50 years old — often, much older. Each generation of seeds carries the same characteristics as the previous one. The seeds saved from these plants will produce the same vegetable or flower crop year after year. However, the size and timing of the harvest can be less predictable than with hybrid varieties. When planting heirlooms, it’s particularly important to choose varieties that have a history of performing well in your region.

Italian heritage pole bean
Heirloom seeds produce plants with a special trait or quality, such as a delicious flavor, but they may be more prone to disease.

Heirloom seeds produce plants with a special trait or quality — such as a delicious flavor, gorgeous color, or generous size — that makes them worthy of saving. Past gardeners who took the effort to save the seeds and share them with others provide benefits to future gardeners. However, the tradition of exchanging seeds has declined greatly in favor of seeds purchased from seed companies.

What Are Open-Pollinated Seeds?

Open-pollinated seeds come from plants that have been pollinated naturally by bees, moths, bats, birds, or the wind. Although all heirloom plants are open-pollinated, not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. The difference is that generations of gardeners have been saving the seeds from heirloom plants because those plants have a specific characteristic they want in the next year’s crop. This isn’t necessarily true of open-pollinated seeds in general.

Should I Use Heirloom Seeds or Hybrid Seeds in My Vegetable Garden?

Both heirloom seeds and hybrid seeds have their benefits. Crops grown from heirloom seeds tend to have more flavor than hybrid varieties. Also, you can collect and plant heirloom seeds year after year and get the same results. In contrast, you need to grow hybrid varieties from seeds you purchase. However, many hybrid seed varieties perform exceptionally well in home gardens. They can produce excellent yields that are uniform in appearance. And with hybrids, the timing of the harvest is usually more predictable than with heirloom varieties.

You Can Help Protect Crop Diversity

Cultivating heirlooms gives you the opportunity to collect seeds, continuing the tradition of sharing successful vegetable and flower seeds in your community. This also helps preserve crop diversity, which relates to food security, nutrition, and adapting agriculture to climate change. Without diversity in our planting choices, we have less flexibility to adapt to a changing climate. Because some crop varieties will perform better than others under different growing conditions, preserving crop diversity through heirloom seeds could help farmers and home gardeners adapt their crops as local climate conditions change.

Now, organizations around the world, from local nonprofit organizations to international research agencies, are working to preserve crop diversity. As home gardeners, you can join this movement by cultivating heirloom crops, saving seeds, and passing them along. Visiting and supporting seed libraries and swapping garden seeds or organizing a seed swap with friends and families are easy ways to participate in the agricultural diversity movement.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.