by Michael Smith (Veshengro)
Although few gardeners agree on the exact definition of heirloom seeds, everyone agrees that heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, which means without any human intervention, and if saved and planted the next year will produce the same variety of plant. In other words, they are not hybrid seeds, but remain true to the original cultivar.
The claim is made that hybrid seeds are either sterile or revert back to the characteristics of the parent plants. Though, to some extent, I do tend to feel that claim to be false for so far I have yet to find seeds collected from a F1 hybrid to be sterile. Whether they reproduce the hybrid or the parent plant I could not say, however, as there never seems to be a change and the beans that I have grown from the seeds of a F1 were better producers than the first time round.
Most gardeners also agree that heirloom seeds refer to varieties that are an old-fashioned variety of fruit or vegetable, typically at least 50 years old. This is subjective however, much like the difference between an antique and a collectible. Heirloom seeds also have a history behind them or a story to tell, which makes gardening with heirloom seeds an even more enjoyable hobby for some.
However, I have had many seeds from heirloom varieties, from the US and from the UK, that have failed to germinate and produce and thus I think, as far as I am concerned, the jury is out as to which are better.
Fruits and vegetables grown with heirloom seeds are said to taste better than those bred for color and "curb appeal" and here often are the large beautiful red tomatoes quoted that you see at the grocery store that have no taste. In fact the bland taste of the large red tomatoes has little to do with the seeds but with the fact that they are, in the main, not grown in soil but by means of hydroponics.
Because they are grown in water only, and the same goes got many lettuces and other vegetables, they have little or no real taste compared to fruit and vegetables grown in soil. Taste also varies with the type of soil and that too is a fact that many a gardener, even professional growers, seem to have little to no idea of.
So, which is better; heirloom or hybrid? My view is go for the best that you can afford and save your own seeds. Most hybrids, at least to I have found, do not seem to be sterile, and that goes equally for flower as for vegetable seeds, and thus keeping some of those from your plants is a good idea too.
Also, when it comes to potatoes, don't fall into the trap the merchants set for you of thinking that you have to buy seed potatoes. You do not have to. Just use your store bought taters when they put on eyes, chit them, put them in the ground and they will grown and produce. I do this all the time. Never have had much luck with seed potatoes but those from the store that went to “seed” all went well
Even got given some blight-resistant new variety (no genetically engineered but bred) and guess what they dies off? Yes, the blight, while the others have grown fine, to some extent, this year. Some have done better than others this year as it simply was too wet for them in the southern part of the UK where we have experienced the wettest drought in recorded history.
If you want old varieties of fruit and vegetables then you will, more than likely have to go for heirloom seeds – and I have found most of them to be more expensive than hybrids – but if you just want to grow a garden it hardly matters as long as it is not Monsanto engineered seeds.