What is open pollinated

How to Choose? Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid Varieties

A hybrid variety, Red Ace F1 Beets

Last week Tom introduced a discussion detailing characteristics of hybrid seeds. As we all consider varieties for the coming season, it is common to wonder about the difference between hybrid and open-pollinated varieties when choosing varieties that are right for you.

First, let’s make sure we’re all speaking the same language. Open-pollinated varieties are those, which if properly isolated from other varieties in the same plant species, will produce seed that is genetically “true to type.” This means that the seed will result in a plant very similar to the parent. Beginning in the early 1900s, plant breeders worked to develop new open-pollinated varieties, using techniques to create a more pure, and thus uniform, genetic line. Heirloom varieties are named open-pollinated strains which either pre-date or are unaltered by the earliest open-pollinated breeding work.

If open-pollinated varieties are allowed to cross within the same species, the resulting seed will be a hybrid. The modern era of plant breeding started when biologists rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s study of genetics. By the 1930s, many hybrid sweet corn varieties were available in the US. In commercial seed production, hybrids come from the careful and deliberate crossing of two different parent varieties, each with traits desired for the offspring. Seed from a hybrid variety can be saved, but will not be true to type.

At High Mowing Organic Seeds, we are of the opinion that both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties deserve a seat at the table. As discussed below, each has its benefits:

The Benefits of Open-Pollinated Varieties

  • Save your seed. The most obvious benefit to using open-pollinated seeds is the option to produce one’s own seed supply. Some crops, including beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce, are self-pollinating, and thus do not even require much isolation for seed saving. Furthermore, by selecting the best plants from which to save seed, anyone can adapt specific variety strains to their region or microclimate.
  • Orange Chard, an open-pollinated variety.

    Less costly. For a number of reasons, open-pollinated seeds are invariably less expensive than hybrid varieties. For every hybrid, there are actually two distinct lines of genetics that must be maintained, not to mention the careful task of production, which can get quite costly.

  • Flavor. Few can ignore the superior flavor of many open-pollinated varieties. Many breeders who specialize in creating hybrid varieties for large-scale commercial growers tend to focus on qualities other than flavor, such as storage ability, uniformity, and characteristics more pertinent to processing. Suffice it to say that since the onset of modern hybrid plant breeding, flavor has not been a priority. However, many newer breeding programs, including our own, take flavor into great consideration when selecting and refining hybrid parent lines as well as open-pollinated varieties.

The Benefit of Growing Hybrid Varieties

There’s a reason that hybrid seeds are a part of what we still call “modern plant breeding” despite their long agricultural history. Hybrid seeds are one of the most significant advances in seed production on record. The ability to combine the best traits of separate varieties into one was widely considered the Holy Grail of plant genetics.

  • Disease Resistance. Most importantly, hybrid seeds offer superior disease resistance. This is because, in the most basic terms, it is easier to breed disease resistance into a hybrid than into an open-pollinated seed. It goes without saying that this is desirable for home gardeners and commercial growers alike.
  • YaYa F1 Carrot, known for its uniform shape and size.

    Uniformity. Hybrid seeds offer unequaled uniformity. Commercial growers in particular desire consistency whenever possible. Hybrid seeds produce uniform plants and uniform fruits. This can make cultivation more efficient as well as provide reliability in marketing the end product.

  • Yield and vigor. Last week Tom mentioned the value of “hybrid vigor.” This term was coined by Charles Darwin in the 1800s to describe the increase in overall vitality found in the offspring of two parent lines of differing genetics. While not all crops demonstrate the effects of hybrid vigor, for those that do, the benefits to the grower can be significant. Yields can double, growth rates increase, seeds emerge more vigorously, and plants can perform better in adverse climatic conditions.

Choose What Works for You!

We hope this furthers your knowledge and brings some clarity to the issue. Keep in mind as you shop for the coming season that we stand behind each and every variety in our catalog, whether open-pollinated or hybrid. Don’t be afraid to try out a couple varieties of a crop to see the differences and chose varieties that work best for you what you need. What matters is what works for you.

As we think about purchasing plants for our Georgia community gardens, especially tomatoes, there are choices to be made. Is a hybrid the best choice? What exactly is a hybrid? What about heirlooms?

Today we are going to think back to our high school genetics class and discuss a bit about plant breeding. Pollen is located on the anther part of the stamen (male part). It is transferred by insect, wind, human hands, or other means to the stigma part of the flower (female part). This is pollination. There the pollen grows down the style to the ovary. That is fertilization. Any of that sound familiar?

A hybrid vegetable is created when a plant breeder deliberately controls pollination by cross-pollinating two different varieties of a plant. The parent plants are chosen for characteristics like fruit size, plant vigor, or disease resistance. The hope is that the resulting offspring will have the positive characteristics.

Millionaire Eggplant Hybrid

The parent designated as the female has the pollen-bearing anthers removed from the flowers. Pollen from a carefully chosen partner is moved to the female plant’s stigma by human hands. The chosen pollen is the only pollen that female receives. This is all very time consuming and carefully monitored. Scientifically it looks like this:

Parent 1 (P1) + Parent 2 (P2) —-> Hybrid (F1)

The resulting hybrid (hopefully) has wonderful characteristics like disease resistance, early maturing fruit, larger fruit, or whatever the plant breeder was trying to achieve. Before a hybrid is available to the consumer, it has gone through many field tests and trials. All this is why hybrids are more expensive plants.

One negative to hybrids is that you can’t save the seed. Seeds grown from hybrid plants do not provide plant types true-to-type. You need to purchase new hybrids year after year. Big Boy and Early Girl are examples of hybrid tomatoes. Millionaire and Early Midnight are popular hybrid eggplants.

Arkansas Traveler tomatoes ready to go in the ground.

Open pollinated vegetables are pollinated in the field by wind or natural pollinators to self or cross-pollinate. Plants that cross-pollinate need to be isolated from other varieties to produce seed that is true-to-type. Crops like tomatoes and beans tend to self-pollinate so saving useful seed is not difficult. Arkansas Traveler, Abraham Lincoln, and Cherokee Purple are popular open pollinated tomato varieties. Black Beauty is a popular open pollinated eggplant variety.

Heirlooms are generally open pollinated plant varieties that are over 50 years old. Traditionally the seed has been carefully saved and handed down from gardener to gardener. These are the plants most treasured.

So whether you choose hybrids, open pollinated plants, heirlooms, or a combination of these…

Happy Gardening!

  • Author
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Becky Griffin

Community and School Garden Coordinator at UGA Extension Becky Griffin helps school and community gardeners succeed! This includes organizing school garden teacher training with county agents, assisting schools with STE(A)M goals, and creating resources on starting and sustaining successful gardens.
Becky is a Georgia Certified Beekeeper and works with community and school gardeners to increase beneficial insect habitat.In 2019, she will coordinate the Great Georgia Pollinator Census (https://GGaPC.org).Ask her about it!

Latest posts by Becky Griffin (see all)

  • The Seed Catalogs are Here! – January 8, 2020
  • Plant Reproduction Basics – November 20, 2019
  • Increase Your School Garden Scope by Saving Seeds – November 12, 2019

Hybrid or Open Pollinated

It’s a struggle, even for experienced gardeners, to choose the best varieties of vegetables. Every catalog description includes only positive information, so each one sounds wonderful. That’s why it’s important to read between the lines, and to do that you must be familiar with the seedsman’s terminology. One of the most common words in seed catalogs today is “hybrid.” Its opposite, usually unnoted, is “open-pollinated” (abbreviated OP).

For the past few years, gardeners have been flooded with information–and a great deal of misinformation–on the relative merits of hybrid and OP vegetable varieties. In some quarters, the distinctions feed a passionate debate, and of course, each point of view has its champions. Various controversies are involved, but in almost every discussion one issue inevitably arises: Which type of plant is better suited to today’s home garden, hybrids or OPs?

While this is a logical question, it presupposes that one of these huge, catchall groups is either wholly superior or wholly inferior to the other. In reality, both hybrids and OPs have their merits, and both deserve space in your garden. But first, let’s back up. I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned from various seed professionals regarding this controversy. Then I’ll take a closer look at some specific differences between hybrids and OPs.

What’s Open-Pollinated Seed?

Open-pollinated vegetable varieties reproduce themselves in one of two ways: cross-pollination between two plants (via wind, insects or water) or self-pollination (between male and female flower parts contained within the same flower or separate flowers on the same plant). Beets, brassicas, carrots, corn and squash are cross-pollinating, and so require isolation in the field to keep varieties true. Beans, lettuce, peas and tomatoes are self-pollinating, do not require isolation and are the easiest for seed-saving home gardeners to sustain year to year.

So long as plants of an OP variety are kept isolated from different plants with which they can cross, they will produce seed that will come “true to type.” In other words, the plants in the following generation will resemble the parent plants.

Many of the older strains of OPs, often refered to as “heirlooms,” are not so much varieties as they are populations. In other words, individual plants within an older named variety can possess a great deal of genetic variability and may even vary in size and shape.

Up until the early 1900’s, almost all cross-pollinating OP varieties represented this broad “gene pool” kind of population. But as plant breeders worked to develop new OPs, they began learning various new techniques to create more uniform varieties of plants.

What Makes a Hybrid?

A “hybrid” vegetable seed results from the cross or mating between two different varieties or “parents” of the same plant species. In the broadest sense, nearly all vegetables are hybrids, the only exceptions being plants such as beans, peas, lettuce and tomatoes that cross-pollinate only with great difficulty.

But today, “hybrid” has a narrower, legal definition: To advertise and sell a vegetable variety as a hybrid (often designated “F1,” the parents must be known and its pollination controlled. Significantly for home gardeners, hybrid seeds cost a little to a lot more, and the seeds hybrid plants produce will not come true to type.

The modern era of plant hybrids began around 1900 when biologists rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s studies of pea genetics. In 1917, Dr. D. F. Jones at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven learned that he could take two very unpromising corn varieties, cross them and get offspring with very good traits but nothing like either parent. In addition, the plants were clearly more vigorous than usual, and they were strikingly uniform in the way they grew.

This ability to combine desirable traits such as disease resistance and earliness in different parent lines, and then, finally, to combine them, producing vigorous and uniform offspring, gave breeders a powerful tool to reshape all sorts of plants. By the 1930’s, many hybrid sweet corn varieties were available. These new varieties were all high-yielding, and some packed enough pest resistance to make corn growing practical where it hadn’t been before. Today, almost all sweet corn varieties offered by seed companies are hybrids, more than for any other vegetable.

Seed Saver’s Dilemma

One problem that breeders faced was that the seed the new hybrids produced did not come true to type. Instead, the offspring of these very uniform hybrids showed the very diverse traits of the grandparents. So to get more seed, the breeders had to go back and repeat the original cross. When the mechanics of making the hybrid-producing cross was simple and the volume of seed produced was great, as with corn, this issue was not critical. But for crops that required slow and detailed handwork, such as tomatoes, breeders took another tack.

After creating a tomato hybrid with desirable traits, breeders would go back and “stabilize” them for several generations until the variety could reproduce itself true to type as any open-pollinated plant. This process gave us classic tomatoes such as ‘Marglobe’ (1935) and ‘Rutgers’ (1937). Initially products of hybridization, these varieties are now considered to be open-pollinated and are treated as such.

According to John Navazio, a Ph.D. and former plant breeder for Garden City Seeds, many modern OPs are in fact “true-breeding hybrids” such as the tomatoes mentioned above. A more recent example is the ‘Peacevine’ cherry tomato introduced several years ago by Alan Kapuler, research director of Seeds of Change. He started with the popular hybrid tomato, ‘Sweet 100’, then selected and stabilized it over several generations. More recently, he has continued to grow out and stabilize other true-breeding OP varieties from commercial hybrids, such as the new ‘True Gold’ sweet corn.

Rating Hybrids and OPs

It is all too easy to make hasty, and usually erroneous, claims concerning hybrids and OP varieties. As every gardener knows, the way different plants grow relative to one another depends upon a wide range of variables, including the vitality of the seeds, the structure and fertility of the soil, the seasonal weather conditions, the local climate and the skill (or luck) of the grower.

Still, we can draw some useful parallels between hybrids and OPs. The following sections briefly cover some of the more important qualities that gardeners (and seed companies) look for in their vegetable varieties, then compare hybrids and OPs to see how they stack up against each other.


One of the chief claims made for hybrids over OP varieties is their superior vigor or growth. The offspring of two different plant varieties often exhibit this increased vitality, which is known as heterosis or, more commonly, hybrid vigor. (The term was coined by Charles Darwin in the 1800s.)

John Navazio maintains that hybrid vigor can prove especially valuable to gardeners who live in extreme climates. “The seeds emerge more vigorously and uniformly,” Navazio says. “They are stronger, and the plants perform better under a wider range of adverse climatic conditions.”

Although Garden City Seeds is committed to breeding new OP varieties and making them available to gardeners, Navazio values certain hybrids, too, for what he calls their “resiliency and instant adaptability.” The difference between hybrid and OP vigor, he says, appears most strikingly in specific regions of the country like the Pacific and Mountain states and northern New England, where early-season cold snaps can slow the growth of heat-loving vegetables. In such conditions, many OPs will go into a “holding pattern,” but the increased vigor of hybrids helps them grow through the unseasonable weather.

Some vegetables seem to gain more hybrid vigor than others. In the case of broccoli and sweet corn, the advantages of hybrid vigor are readily apparent. For other plants–like squash, melons, cucumbers and tomatoes–the difference between hybrid and OP vigor is generally less noticeable.


According to Burpee’s chairman, George Ball, Jr., “The Burpee customer puts a premium on yield.” Hybrid vigor, Ball maintains, can translate into double the yield over OP varieties in the case of some vegetables. And higher yields per plant are crucial for people with smaller gardens, something that Ball sees as a continuing trend.

For gardeners who do have plenty of growing space, getting the maximum yield per plant may be less important than other, less tangible, qualities like taste and uniqueness. A lot depends on your individual needs and expectations. Some gardeners would swear by a favorite heirloom tomato that produced only six or eight ripe fruits per season. Others would be more likely to swear at it.

Disease Resistance

Disease resistance is a major concern for growers and home gardeners alike. Rob Johnston, Jr., the founder and chairman of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, admits that “it’s much easier to breed disease resistance into F1 hybrids than it is to breed it into an OP variety, where many genes may be involved in disease resistance.” However, Johnston adds, “microorganisms, especially bacteria, are pretty clever, and they can eventually find a way around single-gene resistance in hybrids.”

Many in the seed trade see the growing interest in heirloom vegetables as a step backward, toward more disease-prone varieties that are inferior to modern hybrids. It is true, especially in the case of vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes, that hybrids offer better disease resistance than older varieties. Yet many modern OP varieties also have impressive disease resistance. The Marketmore series of cucumbers developed by Dr. Henry Munger at Cornell is one example.


Hybrid seeds are invariably more expensive than open-pollinated seeds. The price difference has to do with, among other things, the costs of creating hybrids and maintaining breeding lines. Also, a company that develops a hybrid can charge a little more for the seed because the firm has exclusivity and because it is difficult or impossible for gardeners to save seed from an F1 hybrid.

Many people gladly pay a premium for hybrid seed–typically anywhere from a few cents to a dollar or more per packet–because seed companies advertise hybrids as high-yielding, surefire varieties. But the proof is in the growing. Set up your own head-to-head trials and decide for yourself whether the hybrid’s performance justifies its higher price.


Fans of heirloom vegetables like to point to their superior flavor. But a much more useful distinction can be made between OPs and hybrids that have been developed specifically for home-garden use and those earmarked for large-scale growers. Breeders who specialize in vegetables for factory farms and food processors tend to focus on qualities other than flavor. Therefore, almost any home-garden vegetable–whether hybrid or OP–will almost certainly taste better than something that has been trucked to your supermarket from California, Florida or Mexico. Beyond that, the question of hybrid versus OP flavor is strictly a matter of personal preference. And taste, as we all know, can be highly subjective. A tomato that sends one gardener into ecstasies of delight may leave another unimpressed.

The Bottom Line

Which are the best kinds of seeds to plant, hybrids or OPs? Perhaps the most useful answer comes from Rob Johnston. His advice is to look beyond labels: “The consumer in me wants settled-down varieties,” he says, “ones that might not have the power of the most vigorous hybrids but that grow well enough. It’s like asking how powerful a car you need or how much money it takes to be rich. The best varieties have a certain vitality, which involves complex combinations of genes. Home gardeners, Johnston advises, should be open to growing any plant that looks interesting to them.”

The OP Honor Roll

Ideal for seed savers because they come true to type, all of the following have superior qualities for home gardeners and richly deserve their popularity. While not an exhaustive list, these are some of my favorites.

Bean, Pole — ‘Kentucky Wonder’ (1850’s). The most popular and widely available pole bean; early and rust-resistant.

Beet — ‘Detroit Dark Red’ (1892) is still the most widely grown OP beet: roots are solid, sweet and tender. Early Wonder (1911) is one of the best for “bunching” thanks to its tall, flavorful greens.

Carrot — ‘Scarlet Nantes’ (1870) is the classic American form of Nantes that has set the standard for crispness and flavor for many years. ‘Red-Cored Chantenay’ (1929) is another truly American carrot (transplanted from France in the late 1800’s). Its roots are mild and sweet, becoming sweeter in storage.

Cucumber, Pickling — ‘SMR 18’ (1959). This is the first pickler to have resistance to both scab and mosaic plus great shape.

Eggplant — ‘Black Beauty’ (1902). Introduced nearly a century ago and still a superior and widely grown home-garden variety.

Lettuce — ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ (1850). Early, adaptable, takes heat and some drought. One of the oldest varieties and as popular today as it was 150 years ago.

Melon — ‘Iroquois’ (1944). The first commercial variety with fusarium wilt resistance; its earliness makes it reliable for gardeners in the North.

Pepper — ‘California Wonder’ (1928). Though several strains are available now, the original still produces well-formed, blocky fruits that are ideal for stuffing.

Squash, Summer — ‘Early Yellow Crookneck’ (circa 1700). Listed in catalogs as early as 1828, it is still by far the tastiest of all yellow squashes, though low-yielding compared with newer hybrids.

Tomato, Fresh — ‘Brandywine’ (1885). An Amish heirloom that has become the standard bearer for heirloom tomato lovers in recent years.

Tomato, Sauce — ‘Roma’ (1955). Widely grown for its good, solid, meaty quality that’s perfect for sauce.

Hybrid Hall of Fame

For a hybrid to last longer than 10 years in the marketplace is a testament to its greatness. The following hybrid vegetables, a sampling of favorites, have become home-garden classics.

Broccoli — ‘Premium Crop’ (1975). Hybrid broccolis come and go, but this one always performs well and has a fiercely loyal following.

Cabbage — ‘Stonehead’ (1969). Truck farmers sing its praises, and home gardeners who make sauerkraut ask for it by name.

Cauliflower — ‘Snow Crown’ (1975). Forms perfect white heads with little or no “buttoning,” bolting prior to head formation.

Cucumber — ‘Sweet Success’ (1983), Becoming more popular every year, its fruits have thin skins and sweet flavor.

Eggplant — ‘Dusky’ (1975). Still the most reliable eggplant for northern gardeners.

Pepper — ‘Gypsy’ (1981). Early, prolific, and tasty.

Squash, Summer — ‘Sunburst’ (1985). After only 10 years, this patty pan has become the standard of its type. The bright yellow fruits are a fixture at farmer’s market.

Ben Watson is the author of Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996; $18), and Gardener’s Supply Company Passport to Gardening : A Sourcebook for the 21st-Century Gardener (Chelsea Green Co., 1999; $20). He lives in Francestown, New Hampshire.

Photography by National Gardening Association.

Open Pollination Information: What Are Open Pollinated Plants

The process of planning an annual vegetable garden is, without doubt, one of the most exciting times of the year for growers. Whether planting in containers, using the square foot method, or planning a large-scale market garden, choosing which types and varieties of vegetables to grow is extremely important to the success of the garden.

While many hybrid cultivars offer growers vegetable varieties that perform well under a wide range of conditions, many may prefer open-pollinated varieties. What does open pollinated mean when it comes to selecting seeds for the home garden? Read on to learn more.

Open Pollination Information

What are open pollinated plants? As the name would imply, open pollinated plants are produced by seeds that have resulted from natural pollination of the parent plant. These pollination methods include self-pollination as well as pollination achieved by birds, insects, and other natural means.

After pollination occurs, the seeds are allowed to mature and are then collected. One very important aspect of open pollinated seeds is that they grow true-to-type. This means that the plant produced from the collected seeds will be very similar to and display the same characteristics as the parent plant.

However, it should be noted that there are some exceptions to this. Some plants, such as pumpkins and brassicas, may cross pollinate when several varieties are grown within the same garden.

Is Open Pollination Better?

The choice to grow open pollinated seeds really depends upon the needs of the grower. While commercial growers may choose hybrid seeds which have been specifically bred for certain characteristics, many home gardeners choose open pollinated seeds for a variety of reasons.

When buying open pollinated seeds, home gardeners can feel more confident that they are less likely to introduce genetically modified seed (GMO) into the vegetable garden. While cross contamination of seed is possible with certain crops, many online retailers now offer certified non-GMO seeds.

In addition to buying more confidently, many open pollinated heirlooms are available. These specific varieties of plants are those which have been cultivated and saved for at least the past fifty years. Many growers prefer heirloom seeds for their productivity and reliability. Like other open pollinated seeds, heirloom seeds can be saved by the gardener each season and planted during the next growing season. Many heirloom seeds have been grown for generations within the same families.

Open-Pollinated Seed

Plants reproduce in a number of different ways. Open-pollinated seeds are seeds from a plant that reproduces through what is known as open pollination. This is what most of us think of when we imagine flowers being pollinated. A good example would be a vegetable plant pollinated by bees. As the bee moves from flower to flower, it mixes pollen from one flower into the others, thereby pollinating them and ensuring that they will fruit.

Open-pollinated seeds require an external force to pollinate them. In most instances, this is accomplished by insects, but there are other ways it can occur. Some plants are wind pollinated, while others are pollinated by the gardener or farmer.

It’s also important to note that open-pollinated seeds will breed “true”. That is, a seed from one plant will reproduce the same type of plant. This is in direct contrast to hybrids, which, if they seed at all and are not sterile, will not breed true. Seeds from a hybrid plant will produce one of the two parent plants used to create the hybrid in the first place.

Most heirloom plants are open pollinated, but some are self pollinated. However, open pollinated plants are not automatically heirloom plants.

If you examine my pockets you will always find, among the lint, some seed. It’s an absent-minded ritual when I see ripe seed. I guess it makes me feel safe to walk around with a potential garden in my pockets.

I don’t think the apocalypse is coming, but Brexit is, and the climate is changing. We need seed that can cope with these things, seed that can adapt to our soils and our climate.

Most of our seed is produced in places with drier climates and cheaper labour. We need a UK-wide system based on organic, open-pollinated seed. Open-pollinated seed breeds true, meaning that, after pollination by natural means – either an insect, bird, wind or human hands – with another representative of the same variety or by self-pollination, the offspring will be roughly identical to its parents. The “roughly” bit matters because this seed is not uniform. It closely resembles its parents, has their characteristics, but it also has its own genetic diversity, and that means adaptability and resilience to changing conditions. The variations may be subtle (perhaps it ripens a bit earlier), or it may wears its diversity like a badge (a multicoloured cob of corn, say).

Dried flower seed pods and seeds. Photograph: Alamy

The Food And Agriculture Organisation estimates that vegetable crops worldwide have lost 75% of their genetic diversity in the past 100 years. On top of that there’s been an increase in patented and genetically modified seed, owned or controlled by a handful of companies.

You can’t do this to open-pollinated seed: a grower can buy seed, save their own and continue to do so for as long as they care. This is called seed sovereignty and there’s a growing worldwide movement to create more of it. It aims to reclaim biodiverse seed, to give growers the right to breed and exchange diverse, open-pollinated seed that can be saved by anyone.

Beans being saved for seed. Photograph: Alamy

The Gaia Foundation set up the seed sovereignty programme in the UK and Ireland to support and develop an ecologically sustainable seed system. Real Seeds in Wales has been leading the way for years, but there’s an increasing band of independent suppliers of vegetable, herb and flower seeds including the Seed Co-Operative in Spalding and Vital Seeds in Devon.

The programme aims to support such seed producers and create more, training small-scale growers, market gardeners, farmers and home growers to conserve threatened seeds and breed new varieties for future resilience. Seed Week starts on 3 December and urges anyone who grows to buy their seed from UK organic or open-pollinated seed producers.

The Difference Between Heirloom, Open Pollinated, and Hybrid Organic Seeds

It can be overwhelming when you are planning your garden. There are many decisions to make, and the choices seem endless. When you are buying organic seeds and plants, you need to decide if you want an open-pollinated (OP), heirloom, or hybrid (F1) variety. They each have their place in the garden, but what you choose depends on your needs.

For seed saving, you need heirloom or OP varieties. These will grow true from saved seed, meaning you will get the same plant as the one you harvested seed from. If you’re not interested in saving seed, a hybrid might work for you.

Open Pollinated Seeds

Open pollinated means the flowers are fertilized by bees, moths, birds, bats, and even the wind or rain. The seed that forms produces the same plant the following year. Some OP plants are self-pollinators. This means the structure of the flower allows fertilization before it opens.

OP varieties grow out true every year. They are genetically diverse, so there can be a lot of variation in the plants and fruits. Since agriculture began about 12,000 years ago, people have been choosing the qualities they like in a plant, such as fruit size, flavor, growth habit, heat and cold tolerance, and uniformity, saved the seed, and continually grew it out year after year. This is plant selection and can only be done with OP seed.

Heirloom Seeds

Fast forward to the 1700s and1800s. In the burgeoning United States, families grew food on their subsistence farms. They saved seed, selecting for the best traits. As seeds from this era got passed down through the generations, they became heirlooms. This is no different than passing down heirloom furniture or jewelry! So the definition of an heirloom is seed that has been grown and passed down over many generations.

Heirlooms also carry stories. A friend of mine gave me some family heirloom bean seed. His ancestors had bought land in the Midwest in 1830 – they did not have time to build a home before winter, so they erected a tent. It was the worst winter for the area in many years, all their livestock died and they were sure they would die too. That is, until indegenous Kickapoo people found them while out on a hunt. They went back to their village and returned with enough beans to feed the family through winter, with extra to plant in the spring. The family has grown decendents from those same Kickapoo beans for almost 200 years now.

All heirlooms are open pollinated, but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms. Only a small fraction of the plant world is considered heirloom.

F1 Hybrid Seeds

Farmers have selected seed for thousands of years to improve the crop. Hybridization came about to further improve food and flower crops. F1 hybrids are the result of two plants with specific characteristics being deliberately crossed to produce a new third variety. If you save seed from a hybrid, and grow it out, you will get one of the parents, not the plant that produced the seed.

Hybrids are usually more productive and vigorous than OPs and heirlooms. They sometimes have disease resistance bred into them, and their growth and fruiting habits are uniform. You have to buy hybrid seed every year and now organic hybrid seeds are available.

There is a misconception that hybrids are genetically modified. They are not! GMOs are modified in a lab setting, but they are not hybridized. You can feel safe buying hybrid seed.

If you want good production, perhaps for putting up food for winter, or need disease resistance, buy hybrids. If you want to save seed, buy OPs or heirlooms. But don’t be afraid to use all types! A major benefit of saving your own seed is that your plants will be acclimated to your local growing conditions. They will be hardier than from seed grown elsewhere.

Flip through a few seed catalogs and read the descriptions. Look for the words heirloom and open pollinated. Read the stories of the heirlooms. A hybrid will have F1 in its name or just below. The description might say which plants were crossed to create it, but will always mention disease resistance and other traits. Seed catalogs are an education in themselves!

As always, figure out what you need first, then do some research, and finally make an educated decision.

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Among the more important decisions every gardener makes is the choice between open-pollinated, hybrid, and heirloom seed varieties. Each of these seed types has something to offer, depending on the gardener’s needs, interests, and values.

For seed-saving purposes, the most significant distinction among these types is that gardeners can save true-to-type seed from open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, but not hybrids.

Here are a few more distinctions that might help you decide what to grow this season:

  • Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms.
    • Because there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will remain true-to-type year after year.
  • An heirloom variety is a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the generational sharing of heirloom jewelry or furniture.
    • An heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. While some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a variety that is more than 50 years old), Seed Savers Exchange identifies heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed.
  • Hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed by human intervention.
    • Hybridization can occur naturally through random crosses, but commercially available hybridized seed, often labeled as F1, is deliberately created to breed a desired trait. The first generation of a hybridized plant cross also tends to grow better and produce higher yields than the parent varieties due to a phenomenon called ‘hybrid vigor’. However, any seed produced by F1 plants is genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years. Not only will the plants not be true-to-type, but they will be considerably less vigorous. Gardeners who use hybrid plant varieties must purchase new seed every year. Hybrid seeds can be stabilized, becoming open-pollinated varieties, by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many years.

So what’s it going to be—hybrid, open-pollinated, or heirloom varieties?

While hybrids have their benefits, choosing open-pollinated varieties conserves the genetic diversity of garden vegetables and prevents the loss of unique varieties in the face of dwindling agricultural biodiversity. Furthermore, focusing on heirloom varieties creates a historical connection to gardening and food production, building a more sustainable future by carrying on our garden heritage.

By choosing open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, you have the ability to help conserve biodiversity and to contribute to the stories behind our seeds.


What’s the Difference?

There are many questions about these three groups of seeds.
What does open pollinated mean? Are all open pollinated varieties heirloom?
Is growing a hybrid a bad thing? Are hybrids the result of genetic engineering?

You may have asked these questions yourself so let’s put some common misconceptions to rest by explaining the differences….

An open pollinated (OP) variety refers to seeds that will breed “true to type” to that of its parents by self-pollination or being pollinated by another plant of the same variety.
There will be some variation but they’ll generally be the same.
OPs are ideal for a home gardener if you don’t want all your produce maturing at the same time, allowing a staggered harvest. They’re also useful for growing crops where you don’t need exact uniformity.
An heirloom (H) variety is always open pollinated, with the seed having been saved by over two generations of gardeners. A generation is regarded as being 25 years so an heirloom must be at least 50 years old!
Some heirloom seeds date back many hundreds of years and often became noted when people migrated from one area of the world to another especially from the old European countries to the New World of the Americas and further afield.
Many heirlooms are still found in the gardens of different peoples from around the world: the corn and beans of Mexican and North American Indians, brassica from China, tomatoes from Central America or Water Spinach from Asia.
Hybrid (Hyb) seeds are the result of a cross between two plants that are genetically similar but different. This breeding is done to gain good qualities of both plants that might improve colour, flavour, uniformity, vigour, disease resistance or maybe early or late ripening.
A first cross is known as an F1 hybrid. If you saved the seed from this hybrid, that seed would be known as an F2 hybrid. However, it would not necessarily be true to type and you could end up with all sorts of results….
The saved seed from an F1 hybrid could be sterile, it could throw back to the characteristics of either of its parents or it could produce a plant that is totally different to anything else.
Hybrids are great for when you want a uniform crop for commercial purposes, when disease resistance is crucial, if a certain colour or flavour is important or when you have to harvest the whole crop at once.

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