Hybrids vs. Heirlooms: New York Times Death Match!

There's a very silly article in the New York Times about controversy over hybrids vs. heirlooms. Yes, this is a real debate. No, it isn't as stark or as stupid as the Times makes it.

There are plenty of horticultural reasons heirlooms can grow glorious fruit. One is size. An heirloom tomato is often a big, robust plant. The central stalk is usually indeterminate: it keeps shooting up after setting fruit. Mr. Ball, of Burpee, recalls a customer telling him about a Brandywine plant that crept into the house through a second-floor window.

An heirloom tomato will also have a lot of leaves, in groups of three, Dr. Heisey said. All that green surface area translates into a lot of photosynthesis. And that means higher sugar levels, one of many factors that make for a mythic tomato.

A modern, hybrid tomato, by comparison, is typically determinate in the way it grows: the stem will stop growing. And the leaves come in pairs. Farmers prefer compact plants with earlier and higher fruit yields. So that's what breeders give them.

But that's not the end of the story. If it were, Dr. Heisey wouldn't be able to argue that a well-bred hybrid, properly ripened, "will taste as good or better than heirloom tomatoes."

As any impatient gardener will testify, many of those old tomato plants don't like to be hurried to make fruit. And while they're hanging around the yard, the foliage can pick up a legion of common diseases, including the blights (early and late) and the wilts (fusarium and verticillium).

As the stricken plant sheds leaves like a sheepdog, it has less sugar to channel into the fruit. This is one reason an October tomato may be no great treat.

By comparison, some blight resistance has been bred into the hybrid for decades, Dr. Heisey said. Most commercial types now have resistance, as do many backyard varieties.

Still, the farmers who first created the heirlooms did not garden in Eden. They had their own nuisances to overcome. Mr. Gettle, the owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, suggests that a well-chosen seed can prove to be a survivor.

For example, he said, growers might find that Southeast Asian cultivars feel at home in the miserable damp of Florida. Alternately, plant enough heirlooms from enough places, and a few are bound to endure.

Besides, Mr. Gettle added, "the same blights hit the hybrids out here in Missouri as hit the heirlooms."

One seedsman asserts that heirlooms are just old seeds that failed, another asserts hybrids are tools of the devil (ok, that isn't actually in there, but it sort of sounds like it). At the end of the article there's actually some good stuff, but there's almost no discussion of why someone might actually choose an Open Pollinated variety or a Hybrid - lots of discussion of subjectives, but little about objectives, of the real reasons small farmers choose between them.

The reason many of us, especially serious gardeners or small farmers like Open Pollinated plants is that we can save seed - and as plants adapt to our particular conditions, the saved seeds get better, and do better in our places. The plants are more productive and do better over time - by the third or fourth generation, there is noticeable improvement in productivity, I find. Everyone has different soil and weather conditions, and adapting to those realities is worthwhile.

Moreover, as a farmer and someone who grows plants as part of her living, my seed bill is a pretty big expense. I don't feel any need to make it bigger by buying new seed every single year. Farming isn't a big money trade - reducing inputs by saving seed is essential for me, it is essential for poor farmers all over the world. It is one of the things we can do for ourselves.

Finally, having seed is a measure of security - if next year the trade discontinues a variety I like, or there is a supply disruption, or a crop loss, I've got seed. This is non-trivial - our CSA, for example, built its reputation on things we did especially well. Our customers wanted to see the mix of red-and-yellow pear tomatoes, the edible flower salad mix, our special fava beans. The seed trade fluctuates a lot, and there are crop losses in any given year - this is the best way to ensure a stable crop.

What about hybrids? Do I eschew them? No, I don't - and with a few exceptions, I know comparatively few growers who wholly do. Particularly in my cold climate, there are comparatively few bell peppers that will get to red-ripe or early broccoli cultivars that will get me broccoli to market when everyone else has it. If you are a home gardener, you can have the luxury of waiting until after everyone else to have broccoli or red peppers. If you go to market or run a CSA, that's just not a choice - seasonal eaters who have been waiting all summer long for a red pepper don't want to wait an extra two weeks.

A hybrid that does something an open-pollinated variety simply can't do is valuable. But unlike the Times article, which frames this primarily as "hybrid vs. heirloom" rather than "hybrid X vs. heirloom X" there's a lot of variety there. Not even the most dedicated hybrid lover bothers to hybridize lettuce or peas, for example, and many of the best tasting varieties are older. In my climate, even the most dedicated heirloom grower usually grows one hybrid sweet pepper to get those reds to market. They may also grow six heirlooms - and there are good reasons for that.

There's also the cost issue - Rob Johnson may be right about the best of the heirlooms, but a large quantity of a Johnny's-bred hybrid melon can cost me three times as much as an open pollinated variety. If it is three times better, ok, fair enough. But what if it isn't - what if there are OP melons that have been bred for earliness and flavor that are just as good? Often there are. For example, they talk about earliness in tomatoes as something that is a product of hybridization - but my best early tomato, Glacier, is a Russian introduction that is open-pollinated - it comes in more than ten days before Early Girl (which, by the way, at least in some strains now seems to be OP, rather than F1 - it has been grown so long that it seems to have standardized, since I've several times grown out multiple generations from supposedly "hybrid" Early Girls -I've seen this in other varieties as well) and is substantively better tasting.

Those who argue that Heirlooms are the junk seeds of the past miss the point - seeds get dropped from the seed trade all the time, not because they are bad, but because they don't sell well (their marketing gimmick doesn't hit the masses) or because they needed space to make room for something new and shiny. One of the arguments for heirlooms is that focus on Open-pollinated vegetables keeps important genetic material alive. We've all seen a favorite or two dropped from the seed or plant trade - consider the quest for the "Fairfax" strawberry - claimed to be one of the best tasting varieties by garden writers as diverse as Ruth Stout, Laura Simons and many others, Fairfax is a parent of today's best tasting "Sparkle" - but the parent has been mostly lost. A friend of mine attempted to rebirth it from a few plants saved from an older site, and what appeared was a less productive but better tasting strawberry than I've ever had. Why did "Fairfax" get lost - probably the push for higher yields and the de-emphasization of taste. What we do know is that things get lost for a variety of reasons, not simply because they are "bad."

Different gardeners have different priorities - disease has never been a major problem in my garden, so I don't emphasize disease resistance - but even if I did, I'd certainly choose a mix of hybrids and heirlooms, both of which have some measure of both. I need cold and wet soil tolerance, and early maturing in my climate, and I can get those things in both ways - but because OP seeds adapt to my place, if they do as well as a hybrid, the hybrid loses. That said, when a hybrid is a clear superior, I'm grateful to the breeder who created it! I'd generally say that to my mind, sweet corn, brussels sprouts, peppers and early broccoli are a place where hybrid breeders have done me a lot of good, while tomatoes (with exception of sungold, which I love for the taste), cabbage, greens, herbs, leeks, etc... are just plenty productive without them.

The other thing that interests me in this discussion is that while heirloom vegetables are growing in popularity, their popularity is still secondary - I know I get more inquiries about why I don't grow Early Girl and Jet Star in my nursery than for "Orange Banana Paste" or "Rose de Berne" tomato. I don't think that's likely to change. And my arguments about seed saving apply to me, but most gardeners don't save seed - or for that matter, grow their own plants from seed. They buy what the nursery trade has to sell, mostly still the usual hybrid stand-bys. It is interesting to me that the Times makes this into such a stark either/or death match -but that's the newspaper business.

What about you? Hybrids? Heirlooms? Both?


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Great comments, and excellent reasoning. Once again moderation and knowing your soil seem to be the best way to go. Thank you so much for sharing the debate, and your insights.

Both, obviously. ;)

if next year the trade discontinues a variety I like, or there is a supply disruption, or a crop loss, I've got seed.

I sometimes get the impression that people think seed is made in factories. Yup, sometimes you go to your supplier for such-and-such, and they just don't have it this year, or the price has tripled.

Both. I completely agree with your analysis. I like hybrids for the more finicky coles: cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts. Lettuces, herbs, legumes, kales, etc are OP. My scale is smaller than yours and non-commercial, so I think the financial analysis is different for me. I don't save seed, so while the hybrid seed is more expensive than its OP counterpart, I generally sow it much more thinly, making my overall cost per start about par. Tomatoes still stump me, and I grow both. We have a short growing season so hybrids would seem better for ripening and uniformity, but I far prefer to grow indeterminate tomatoes trained cordon style.

Both. Depends on the crop, and whether I want to go to the bother of saving seed (lettuce, beans, beets - okay, squash and other cucurbits - nope!)

I recently had a Facebook "discussion" with an anti-hybrid type. Her reasoning was, I kid you not, that all hybrids are "zapped with radiation" and are a mix of two or more species.

And when I very nicely asked for references or clarification, I got put in my place, since she "teaches this stuff". Oh my, her poor, poor, poor students!

Argh. If you only knew how many hours of sleep I lose over this, every night.

No, NOT kidding! In my world of tree crops, this turns out to be a much bigger deal- because of the time span and investment. It can be 15 years before you're really sure you made the wrong choice. The waste is enormous.

And there are "experts" pounding on both sides, and poor saps eventually choosing one side, based on faulty information.

My short answer; emphatically Both (of course) - but, also, you REALLY need to do your homework here. Particularly if you expect to wind up relying on the food, for the survival of your children. The wrong tomato this year is not a big deal; but the wrong potato, just might be.

A big part of my problem, technically - the word "hybrid" covers a bunch of totally different genetic mechanisms; understanding one, does not mean you understand the other; but few are able to reach that level of comprehension; and freaking NOBODY is explaining that so laypeople can grasp it.

I've tried. I'm still trying. But so far what happens is, put off by the complexity, people revert to choosing personalities to believe. Whole different can of worms. And, they're hybrid worms, in this case.

Both, definitely. I think one reason heirlooms are still "secondary" is that there are so many crop failures that result from incomplete information. It is possible (even easy!) to buy seeds for heirloom tomatoes from Germany or Russia (for example), and the resulting plants are just not going to do well here in NW Georgia. People buy them, lose the tomato crop, and decide that heirlooms are a total bust. However, heirlooms from this region, or a region with similar climate, disease, and pest pressures, are going to do very well, but most people don't know that the background information for a variety is REALLY important.

I'm a home gardener in a warm climate who is learning how to save seeds, so I use open-pollinated seeds - not necessarily heirlooms, however, though many of the varieties I grow are old enough for the heirloom designation. There are some new open-pollinated varieties being created, and I like to try some of them. But I don't have anything against hybrids on principle, or OP varieties that are less than 50 years old for that matter. It might be fun to do a little crossing myself to create my own hybrids if I want to get something I can't find in open-pollinated varieties.

Greenpa's point is well-taken. GE varieties, for instance, could be either hybrids or open-pollinated. Trying to explain this to someone who is new to gardening and has little or no biology background isn't easy.

Do you mind if I chime in that your analysis is really good, Sharon? ;-)

I read the NYTimes article, and your response was very much the article that NYT should have written. Very informative, Sharon, thank you!

Very glad to hear about your luck with Glacier tomatoes. Trying it for the first year as last summer was dicey, and our tomatoes were late to ripen.

Hybrids: I also appreciate hybrids in broccoli, a couple of tomatoes (Golden Rave, Sungold), one jalapeno pepper (El Jefe), corn, and I'm trying a few hybrids out in squash (Grey Ghost and Honey Bear acorn) this year. Part of the reason I choose hybrids in broccoli, corn, and squash is that I don't collect my own seeds from these, so I figure, what the heck, try different kinds.

OP: Mostly I go this route with the other veg. I like seed saving, and I like inexpensive seeds. I have an OP sweet pepper that ripens early, has no disease problems and tastes divine, though it is pretty thin-walled and has a funky shape, which makes it time consuming to slice.

I want both hybrids and heirlooms around. And I generally think that people developing new varieties and preserving old varieties are doing useful work.

Okra? Last year I tried two "heirloom" varieties of okra instead of the Clemson Spineless that is so commonly sold. The heirlooms produced fewer pods, had wildly variable tenderness on the same-sized pods, started blooming later and quit earlier. Not a good experience.

BTW, Clemson spineless is now being sold as "heirloom" by many on-line companies. It's a deliberately bred commercial variety that is several decades old: spineless pods, compact (for okra anyway) bushes, and a long producing season. It breeds true, so I've been giving away seeds all over the place.

Tomatoes? I guess you could call them heirloom.

I'm growing a wild-collected cultivar (Matt's Wild Cherry) that actually has a chance in AZ summers, a nameless Indian cultivar that tolerates heat (you could call it heirloom, because someone mailed the seeds from their family village India, but it's been identified tentatively as Pusa Ruby, one of the most popular commercial OP varieties in India.)

And I'm growing some commercial paste tomato varieties.

Eggplant? The big box store's "Ichi Ban" out-performs any of the heirlooms I have tried.

Chilis? Store-bought "serrano" seedlings lasted 2 years and gave massive harvests. A couple of other varieties (commercial New Mexico Long chilis) were disappointing. It's too hot here for most of them.

Trying Chile Bajio this year, and more serranos from seed.

They are promiscuous, and you either have to hand-pollinate or grow them a mile or so away from other chilis to get them to breed true.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 25 Mar 2011 #permalink

I grow mostly open-pollinated plants, but that's because I'm working on seed-saving techniques for veggies in my climate (how to overwinter cabbage, etc)and that's my current area of interest. Hybrids I can't save seed, so there isn't much point in attempting to overwinter them. I think the heirloom designation can be awkward- I have some that I grow because they have historic value, but mostly I am happy to take advantage of breeding advancements, as long as they are still OP. But if there was a variety I really liked, I would grow it, hybrid or not.

This is the first year I've started most of my own plants from seed. (Not coincidentally, it's the first year of my adult life where I've had space for anything besides a container garden.) I'm a big advocate of OP varieties, pretty much for all the reasons you just stated, though I'll only be doing a tiny bit of seed-saving for now, as I'm still learning what varieties work well here in the first place. :)
Going over my seed collection, I'd say it's about 95% OP varieties - I pick them when they are interesting for me or do what I want, which is most of the time - but I have a couple of things that aren't. Same holds with my so-far small order of plants from elsewhere. 7 heirloom varieties, to try what works well here, and 1 hybrid, because the growth habit it's been bred for is something I have a need for this year. If I like how it produces and tastes, it will likely stay on my plant order list. If I don't, I'll keep looking. That goes for all my OP varieties, of course, but in their case I can at least work towards something that thrives under the conditions I can provide.

"...we can save [OP] seed - and as plants adapt to our particular conditions, the saved seeds get better, and do better in our places."

Nope. Only as we select individual plants for seed-saving that have thrived in our particular conditions and have the traits we desire, the saved seeds of that variety get better in our places. BIO 101.

Well, yes, Mark - I took that as fairly implicit that the seeds don't get better in a single generation. I suppose I really do have to say it, but I pretty much assumed people knew how the process worked - yes, you have to select from the plants that do well.

Greenpa, that's a good point and even with annual veg, as Clare points out, there are some complexities that most people don't grasp.


I grow both. But predominately the heirlooms and open-pollinated varieties. I don't like the idea of going down the path and reaching the point to where someone owns (yes, many hybrids are patented) all of our seeds - nor do I want the genetic diversity to be lost. Also, I have to stand by heirlooms as far as flavor - sorry, but the old varieties win every time for me.

Something that I don't think was mentioned is that we're seeing studies that show that the open-pollinated varieties are retaining higher nutritional value than their hybrid counterparts...and that feels like its important to know.

As usual, the media loves a good argument but there really doesn't need to be one in this area. Seed companies that carry mostly hybrids are going to favor them - pretty simple to figure out why.

Chris McLaughlin
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Heirloom Vegetables

Hm. Something has just occurred to me; stimulated right here; so I'll pass it on.

Everybody is looking for new skills, for our new future? And new ways to make some kind of income?

How about- local hybrid seed grower? Producing good hybrid seed is a learnable skill; and done locally, with local production records, has real benefits. There are some things where the hybrids just really have an advantage. So? Trade your local hybrid provider some of your honey, for their hybrid pepper seed; every year.

And, yet another way to stick it to Monsanto... :-)

Skill level required- somewhere between beekeeping and being a farrier... I'd say.

Both, though my preference is for heirloom. My mainstay tomato is a stabilized hybrid, the Speckled Roman. I grow Eliot Coleman's hybrid "candy" Napoli carrots, because, well, who could resist? For many other crops I like the heirlooms. And I love the luxury of not having to grow for market. As you point out, it doesn't matter for me if my crops are later than what other farms produce, or less pretty, or whatever. I don't save too much of my own seed, except where it's really easy or really important to do so. I've been saving Tuscan kale, arugula, and purple foxglove for the former reason, and ramp seed for the latter - I just can't find it very easily and I want lots of ramps! I think as Monsanto and other evil corporations control more and more of the food supply, it will become more and more important for me to conserve my own seed lines. So OP plants will become more and more valuable to me.

I've heard comments from some seed savers around here to the effect that not all hybrids that you purchase really are hybrids. This is part of the marketing after all, that hybrids are always better - so there better be some available even if they are not grown that way. Tomatoes were the example i heard about, and if you think about it, you can see why this might be the case. Actually generating the crosses to get hybrid tomato seed might not be all that easy. Perhaps the variety started out as a hybrid but after a few generations of selecting the open pollinated off-spring, you can get something that is pretty much like the original hybrid - but at much less production cost. So you continue to market with the hybrid name because that's what people expect.

This goes to the point that "de-hybridizing" the hybrids is a perfectly valid way of generating excellent open pollinated varieties of just about anything. Hybrids are the "easy" way to get uniform and vigorous new varieties. Generating the hybrid is just the first step in selecting for a new open pollinated variety. SO don't hesitate to save seeds from hybrids - with your eyes open.

If you discover all of the off spring are pretty much like the original, then "hybrid" was just there for marketing. If you discover great diversity in the offspring, then get to work on selecting the best for your particular growing environment, happy to know that the genes in that original hybrid have the potential to produce a high quality variety.

Both. Our wet, cool, maritime climate makes growing a challenge. My OP tomatoes that do best are a mix, one is actually an heirloom (Costoluto Genovese)and one is a more recent cold weather tomato (Bellstar) developed in Canada. I think sometimes people get the heirloom OP distinction mixed up, not all OP seeds are heirlooms yet, but all heirlooms are OP... . I like a few hybrids too - and almost all of them are foods I probably would not grow if we're talking an apocalypse type situation

I tire of this debate with animals too - it gets to the point where people actually loath certain breeds or hybrids and it is sad. Finding the good in any species whether it is plant or animal is a better approach.