There are three different types of seeds: heritage seeds, hybrids, and GMO. Heirloom or heritage seeds (the terms are used interchangeably) are open pollinated. This means that they will either self pollinate or will be pollinated by birds, animals, wind or other natural means. The offspring will produce plants that are like the parents. In order to be called “heirloom,” they must be at least fifty years old.
Hybrid seeds combine the qualities of one plant with the qualities of another to get specific, desirable characteristics. These plants do not create offspring that look like themselves. For an animal example, a Rhode Island Red rooster that is bred to a Barred Plymouth Rock hen will result in a black sex link. The black sex link is the hybrid. However, if you breed two black sex links, they will not create other sex links.
Seedless watermelons are a plant example of hybrids. If your plants look very uniform and picture perfect, they are probably hybrid seeds. If they are seedless or sterile, they are hybrids.
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” Plant seed DNA is altered to have characteristics that it did not have previously. Genetically modified corn, for example, is designed to have a bacterial toxin (Bt) grow inside each corn kernel. While Bt attacks corn’s greatest predator – the corn rootworm – and help to get a better crop, the side effects when eaten are things like severe food allergies, infertility, and cancer.
Benefits of Heritage Seeds
Since they produce seeds, you can collect your own seeds from the parent plants rather than buying new ones each year. This saves you money.
They taste better. Garden grown vegetables are always more tasty than hot house grown food. That’s why we flock to farmer’s markets as soon as the produce starts pouring in. But heritage seed grown plants are even tastier still. Don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. This is probably the top reason that people choose heritage seeds.
Heritage seeds produce more nutritious plants. With poor soils and ineffective fertilizer practices, this is a big deal. Our food is no longer all that healthy. Planting heritage seeds is one link in the chain to turn that around.
Heritage seeds produce plants with more variety. They don’t look perfectly uniform and don’t ripen all at once so you don’t go from having no tomatoes or cucumbers to having them coming out of your ears.
Heritage seeds may be more sustainable. Nature created these plants over thousands of years. They are likely to be more drought, disease, and pest resistant. This contributes to food security.
What’s the Downside?
Okay, we have to be fair and look at the downside. If there were no downside, there would be no motivation for hybrids or GMOs. Heritage seeds produce plants that are probably not going to be as visually attractive. They may not travel as well over long distances. They may also be more prone to disease and have lower yields. Usually none of this matters to a backyard gardener, but it’s good to know that your results will be different.