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Heirlooms vs. Hybrids: What’s the Difference?

When shopping for plants you may see some plants are labeled heirloom, while others are marked hybrid. What is the difference between the two? Does it really matter which ones you grow?

Heirlooms vs. Hybrids: What’s the Difference?

Heirlooms vs. Hybrids: What’s the Difference?

These terms seem to create a lot of confusion among gardeners. There are those who love heirlooms and those who think hybrids are the way to go. Hybrids tend to be heartier, produce more fruits, and less prone to bugs and pests. Heirlooms develop stable characteristics over time and tend to evoke nostalgia. The seeds are passed down through generations and have become an important part of a family's history. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated varieties that were planted before 1940 there are more than 50 varieties in circulation today.

In reality, there may be room in every garden for both types of plants. To understand the differences between heirloom and hybrid plants, it helps know how they began.

Open-Pollination vs. Careful Manipulation

sliced tomatoes

Open-pollination is a form of plant reproduction which occurs in one of two ways:

  1. Cross-pollination (in the context of open-pollination) occurs when two varieties of the same plant species reproduce due to natural pollinators, such as wind, birds, or insects.
  2. Self-pollination occurs when a plant possesses both male and female parts and can reproduce by itself. Self-pollinating plants, such as tomatoes, breed true to the parent plant and do not require isolation to avoid contamination from other varieties.

What are hybrid plants?

Green tomatoes on a vine

Hybrid plants, on the other hand, are the result of highly controlled cross-pollination between different varieties of the same species of plants. Most tomato varieties in stores are hybrids and not produced by open-pollination. Open-pollination that occurs in nature is unpredictable and cannot be sold on a large scale.

In order to sell a hybrid commercially, its breeding must be carefully monitored in order to ensure the same characteristics are present across all plants sold under that name. Since there is a lot of human involvement in the development of these types of plants, many people believe hybrid plants are also genetically modified.

Are hybrid plants genetically modified?

3 red cherry tomatoes on a vine

No. Hybrid plants and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are NOT the same things.

Once again, the difference between the two goes back to how they are created. Hybrids are the result of highly controlled cross-pollination between two varieties of the same plant species. The resulting plant will have the characteristics from each of its parent plants.

What are GMO's?

GMOs are the result of scientific manipulation at the cellular level. In a lab environment, plant cells are altered through the addition of outside substances like pesticides or DNA from other organisms. The end result is a new organism that would never occur in nature without this type of manipulation.

Which is Better: Heirlooms or Hybrids?

seedlings sprouting from soil

The answer depends on how and where you are growing your plants. Heirlooms are often treasured for their delicious flavor, while many hybrids are prized for their heartiness, high yields, and resistance to disease and pests.

Tomatoes in boxes on a table covered with a red and white cloth

The biggest difference between the two is this: Heirloom varieties grow year after year with nearly the same results. They tend to have similar yields, color, and taste. Hybrids do not offer that type of genetic stability. Plants grown from the seeds of hybrid plants are unlikely to look, taste, or have a predictable yield. The plants from which the seeds were collected will not be the same as the plants that are grown from its seeds.

So, if you like to grow your garden from seeds, heirlooms are a better choice for you. If not, there is no need to limit your options to just one variety. Branch out and explore them all.

Have More Questions About Gardening?

We have learned a ton about gardening this year and are happy to share our experiences. Whether you are in a state like Arizona where planting produce year-round is feasible, or you are located in states where the planting season is short, these tips are still relevant. Make sure to check out the tips below for more info you'll need.

What Should I Make with My Tomato Harvest?

Of course, the best part of planting your own vegetables is when you get the chance to harvest and eat them. Tomatoes are one of our favorites, and while they may be technically a fruit, we call them vegetables. Below are a few of the best recipes to use your tomatoes!

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