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Heirloom or hybrid?

Pink Brandywine tomato is credited with sparking interest in  heirlooms. Photo courtesy Bonnie Plants

Pink Brandywine tomato is credited with sparking interest in heirlooms. Photo courtesy Bonnie Plants

If you’ve been perusing the mail order garden catalogs or online websites, you may have come across some confusing or unfamiliar terms.

Take heirloom, for instance. An heirloom vegetable or flower has been in cultivation for at least 50 years. Heirlooms also are open pollinated. To understand open pollination, we need a bit of botany, said seed merchants Renee Shepherd of reneesgarden.com and Patty Buskirk of seedsbydesign.com in their ezfromseed.com newsletter.

The flowers produced by plants are either perfect or imperfect. Perfect means male and female parts are in the same flower. A tomato is an example of a perfect flower. Imperfect means the plant produces separate male and female flowers. Squash is an example of a plant that does this.

“Regardless, the pollen must be transferred from the male organ of the flower to the female organ in order for seeds to form. This can happen by wind or with the help of pollinating insects like bees,” Shepherd said.

An advantage of open pollinated plants is that the seeds they produce will generally come true when replanted.

Big Beef, a 1994 All-America Selections, is a hybrid that is  resistant to several diseases that affect tomatoes.

Big Beef, a 1994 All-America Selections, is a hybrid that is resistant to several diseases that affect tomatoes.

A hybrid is the cross pollination of two or more plants to breed for certain characteristics, such as sweeter or more plentiful peppers or disease resistant cucumbers. Hybrids have been around for decades – remember Gregor Mendel and peas? Seeds from hybrids are viable, but will not likely come true, reverting to one of the parent plants.

Many gardeners extol the flavors of heirlooms, asserting that a lot of umami is bred out of hybridized tomatoes for the sake of consistent size and color. And with flowers, the first attribute to go in hybridizing is frequently fragrance.

Many hybrid plants have been bred to fend off diseases, such as tomatoes rated F or V, indicating resistance to fusarium and verticillium wilt. This does not mean hybrids are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. There are few, if any, GMO vegetables for home gardeners.

Can you have an organic garden if you don’t use certified organic seeds? “Yes! In your own garden, you want a safe environment with healthy and nutritious plants,” Shepherd said.

To achieve that: Maintain healthy soil, follow effective organic gardening techniques, use certified organic fertilizers and look for alternatives to chemical pest and disease controls.

Unless a seed is specifically labeled as treated, which is very rare in the home garden seed market, it has not been treated with pesticides or fungicides, she said.

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