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Beacon Senior News

The benefits of heirloom v. hybrid seeds

Dec 23, 2021 09:38AM ● By Bryan Reed
Person gardening with a tomato seed packet.

January means it’s the beginning of a new growing season! For gardeners, this is the time of year when visions of Eden in our yard dance in our heads and our gardens are perfectly ripe with potential.

The seed catalogs have also arrived! It’s fun to see the new varieties along with pictures of crops we’ve forgotten about. Now is the time to designate space in the garden to try growing something new. Maybe this is the year to establish some asparagus or see if homegrown parsnips are really as creamy as they say.

Once you choose your crop, your next decision is the type of seeds to get: hybrid or heirloom?


Disease-resistant hybrids

Hybrid seeds gained popularity in the late 1800s. This technique intentionally crosses pollen between the same species of crops to produce offspring with more desirable traits. We’ve gained size, color, shapes and uniformity of maturation by breeding traits into crops—all of which aid commercial growers. Hybridized seeds have also been bred to fortify crops against common diseases and viruses. Having powdery mildew (PM) in the Grand Valley makes a PM-resistant cucumber a good choice, as it can withstand the disease.

The downside to hybridized seeds is that saving them is dicey. Each seed may exhibit traits from either parent or multiple grandparents, which greatly decreases the chances that a saved seed will be identical to the parent plant.

More importantly, since hybrid seeds have taken over the agriculture industry, declines in food nutrients have followed suit. Breeding in a desired trait has the unfortunate consequence of breeding out other traits—most commonly nutritional content.

In August 2019, Scientific American published an article documenting a 10- to 100-percent decline in the nutritional value of food. Their final statement was that today a person needs to eat two times the amount of meat, three times the fruit, and four to five times the vegetables to obtain the same vitamins and minerals as food grown in the 1940s.

Thank goodness home gardeners have another option!


Nutrient-rich heirlooms

Fortunately, heirloom seeds are now available from a variety of sources. 

Each heirloom seed came from an open-pollinated parent, meaning the parent’s same genetics and displayed traits transferred to the child plant. Many heirloom seeds are saved for generations.

Home growers have long known that heirloom tomatoes taste amazing, but studies are showing that heirloom crops have more vitamins and lycopene than their hybridized counterparts. 

Ohio State University and Agricultural Research Service in California have specifically found that orange heirloom tomatoes contain prolycopene, a disease-fighting antioxidant not found in hybrid tomatoes.

One fantastic source of heirloom seeds is Baker Creek Seeds (www.rareseeds.com). Not only does their catalog read like a novel, but they support numerous nonprofit and community gardens around the country. Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa (www.seedsavers.org) is a clearinghouse for heirloom seeds passed down from previous generations who immigrated to this country. I also recommend most local seed swaps. 

Most vegetable crops begin to naturalize to their surroundings after four to seven generations, so locally saved seeds have already begun to adopt to our low humidity, alkaline water and cool nights. That makes for a stronger plant that better transfers nutrients (and flavor) from the soil to your body.

Gardening is fun. Eating tasty produce grown yourself is wonderful. But eating fruits and veggies packed with antioxidants and minerals is the best reward you can give yourself as a grower.


Read another gardening story here.