Living off the Land: Hybrid vs. heirloom veggies

Lance Ellis

There is currently a lot of discussion going on about the pros and cons of heirloom varieties in comparison to the newer hybrid varieties of vegetables that we grow in our home gardens.

Heirloom plant varieties are generally classified as being an older variety of plant that has not been hybridized or genetically modified and for the lay gardener, it could be a variety that your great-grandparents grew in their gardens. These older varieties reflect what people ate out of their gardens in the 1700s through the early 1900s or earlier.

A good contrasting example between a modern garden and one from their time period would be the difference in melons. The older garden would have had smaller melons, specifically old varieties of musk melons, while a modern garden would grow large water melons and cantaloupes. Proponents of heirloom varieties contend that through hybridization, we have lost a lot of the flavor and sweetness that was naturally found in older varieties in exchange for larger size and disease resistance. While this argument is based mostly on personal preference, there are many of the heirloom varieties that do offer excellent taste and sweetness, and can compete well with their hybridized descendants.

On the other side of the discussion, the reason hybrids were developed was for their desirable qualities including disease-resistance, size, holding capacity after harvest, color and flavor. One other significant difference between heirloom and hybrid varieties is that heirloom varieties will have seeds that genetically are true to their variety type if grown separately from other plants of the same species.

Hybrids, on the other hand, will not produce seed that is true to type when self-pollinated or cross-pollinated, and you will get seeds that have genetic characteristics different from the parent stock.

Some of the more popular older vegetable varieties or heirloom varieties you could look for include: Brandywine Tomatoes, Lillian’s Yellow Tomatoes, Golden Bantam Corn, French Breakfast Radishes, Jenny Lind Cantaloupes, Improved Long Green Cucumbers, Paris White Cos Lettuce, Warted Hubbard or Blue Hubbard Winter Squash, Blue Lake Beans, Romano Beans, Kentucky Wonder Beans, Lemon Cucumbers, Ronde De Nice Squash and Violetta di Firenze Eggplant.

Another topic related to heirloom and hybrid vegetables is storing seeds from year to year as a form of food storage and self-preparedness. Most people have leftover seed after planting and most seeds can be stored for a few years depending upon what kind of plant it is and in what conditions it is in.

Three environmental conditions control the longevity of seeds in storage. A low-moisture, dry storage is critical to keeping seeds viable. Humidity or wet seeds could start molds or premature sprouting that either way will lead to dead seeds. Secondly, cool temperatures are essential, as they reduce the speed at which a seed will degrade over time, and help to preserve its viability. Lastly, seeds need to be in the dark, as light will speed up their degradation and reduce their longevity. Keep them cool, dark, and dry, and many seeds will keep for two to five years, depending upon what they are. There are the vacuum-sealed cans of seed available on the market that prevent moisture and light degradation, but they too must be stored in a cool environment for best longevity.

And lastly, I would like to debunk any myths and rumors concerning why fruit trees in eastern Idaho did not have fruit develop on them. It was due to primarily to a late-spring frost that killed off most blossoms or just developing fruit. Another factor for some trees was the more intense winter that we experienced that caused the trees issues as well. The eclipse was not the reason many trees failed to set fruit.

Lance Ellis is the University of Idaho Extension educator for Fremont County. He can be reached at 208-624-3102.