Heritage Seeds and Hybrid Seeds: Understanding the Difference and Making the Right Choice

Heritage seeds, or heirloom seeds, are often thought of as royalty – they are seeds that have been saved from generation to generation because they have been deemed valuable.

Unfortunately, like the royalty of old, they often lack genetic variation and can be more prone to pests and disease. 

By contrast, hybrid seeds have been bred to achieve robust traits, often selecting for favorable characteristics such as disease resistance or cold tolerance. From a practical standpoint, hybrid seeds are the go-to for farmers who do not have the luxury of choice.

Scholars of history are familiar with Ireland’s devastating potato famine, in which a lack of genetic diversity in potatoes precipitated widespread famine and blight.

Fortunately, the average home gardener does not rely on crops for their livelihood and can expand their palate shall they choose to do so. 

Terms to understand

When browsing seed catalogs, you may have encountered certain terminology such as genetically modified, heirloom, and open-pollinated. Below are terms commonly found on seed packets, their definitions, and their implications for gardening. 

Certified organic: Certified organic is a label given to seeds or plants grown using certified organic farming methods that comply with specific regulations. While many brands can claim the label ‘organic,’ only a few are actually certified organic. Organic seeds can be both hybrids or heirlooms. Proponents of the organic movement espouse organic seeds for ethical and environmental reasons. By buying organic seeds, you are supporting seed farmers and enhancing the local economy – whatever gastronomic experience you reap from the taste of fresh produce is an added benefit. 

Genetically Modified (GM): GM or GMO seeds have been bioengineered using modern techniques like gene modification to be commercially viable. Many major production crops are genetically modified: corn, wheat, cotton, and soybeans. Intended to be grown by commercial farmers, GMO seeds are not available to the general public.

Heirloom (Heritage): Heirlooms are open-pollinated cultivars that have been passed down through generations. They often hold cultural significance or are of exotic provenance. Heritage is another designation given to heirlooms, usually used within the UK, and are more or less the same thing. 

Hybrid: Hybrids are created when two different varieties of plants of the same species are cross-pollinated in a controlled environment to produce superior traits, such as higher yield, improved color, or greater uniformity. Only in recent years have breeders began focusing on the issue of flavor, which accounts for the bland taste of some hybrids. They will not grow true to seed; saved seeds will not produce plants with the same genetic characteristics as the parent, and gardeners will have to purchase new seeds. 

Open-pollinated: Open-pollinated seeds are seeds that have been self-pollinated or cross-pollinated by natural forces – birds, bees, pollinators, or the wind. If no cross-pollination from a different variety occurs, OP varieties will grow true to seed, with the next generation being virtually a replica of the parent plant. Though there are some downsides to open-pollinated seeds (sporadic growth, unreliable germination), there do not generally affect the home gardener. 

Selecting seeds for your garden

Thanks to modern advancements in the field of agriculture, there is now an abundance of hybrid, heritage, and heirloom varieties on the market.

In small gardens, hybrid seeds are preferred due to their ability to produce high yields in a limited space. Some hybrids, particularly bush types, do not require staking or intensive care, and may be the best option for the beginner gardener.

Experienced gardeners who savor the thrill of the hunt can choose heirloom or heritage varieties to grow.

Advantages of heirloom seeds

Black Krim heirloom tomatoes | Vego Garden
Black Krim heirloom tomatoes

Black Krim heirloom tomatoes

Increased diversity of shapes, sizes and colors: Whether at the farmer’s market or in a glossy magazine, probably have encountered heirloom tomatoes, which are characterized by their whimsical, oddly shaped fruit and greater variety of color. The visual appeal of heirloom seeds is undeniable – and foraging through garden catalogs can be a magical experience.

Preservation of history: Gardeners with a fondness for history may also appreciate heritage seeds for their pre-war origin. Black Krim heirloom tomatoes, which are known for their beef-steak appearance and maroon-hued skin, were reputedly brought back by soldiers returning from the Crimean War. (Incidentally, “Krim” is the Ukrainian word for Crimea.)

Better flavor and higher nutrition content: Some gardeners choose to specialize in heirloom varieties due to their distinct flavor and denser nutrient content – and that’s not just a psychological effect. Research has shown that newer vegetable cultivars are indeed significantly less nutritious than heirlooms.

Advantages of hybrid seeds

Hybrid seed production in lab | Vego Garden
Hybrid seed production in lab

More likely to produce a better yield: Hybrids generally have better performance and bear larger fruit. By contrast, heirloom tomatoes and other heritage seeds will not result in prolific yields. If you seek a plentiful harvest or want plenty left over for the winter, then hybrids are recommended

Easier and faster to grow: Hybrids generally need to be pampered less than heirlooms – years of controlled cultivation have fortified them against pests and disease. Even advanced gardeners will grow hybrids alongside heirlooms to increase their chance of success.

Better shelf life: In comparison to heirlooms, hybrid crops have a longer shelf life and are intended to be stocked.

Should I avoid GMO produce?

Many Americans avoid GMO produced food, whether due to anti-corporate sentiments or preconceived notions that they are unhealthy. Currently, the consensus is in flux, but one thing’s for certain: no amount of supermarket groceries can beat the benefits of a healthy, homegrown garden. Many young folks are rediscovering the joys of gardening after increased periods of isolation and uncertainty. Gardening can be a great way to connect to nature, alleviate stress, and save money. 

What types of heirlooms are the easiest to grow?

Gardeners looking for easy heirlooms to grow can get started with the Black Krim tomato, Amish Paste tomato, and Black Beauty zucchini. Heirloom beans and lettuce varieties also do not require much of an investment. Beginners can check out this useful seed-starting bundle or these sustainable, at-home growing kits





Leave a comment