Thursday, January 1, 2009

What is with these seeds?

It is the first of the year. This means I am finishing our seed order. Due to our variety choices, the seeds are coming from a few different companies. While choosing seeds can be considered a great way to pass chilly winter days, it can also be considered the scourge of my existence. There are a lot of factors to consider; herein I will attempt to describe one of the inherent difficulties. I will spend the next few minutes nerding out about the differences in seed types because I think it is confusing, hopefully this is a useful thing to talk about…

Hybrid seeds v. Open-pollinated: Generally speaking, most commonly grown vegetable plants have been breed over generations (just like poodles and pot-bellied pigs) to have the traits we find most desirable. For example, plants are bred to taste better, produce more fruits, or show disease resistance. More recently, breeders have begun producing hybrid (F-1) seed that is derived by cross breeding two distinct “pure” genetic lines (more similar to labradoodles and cockapoos). These pure lines have been bred for generations to exhibit one spectacular trait: one of the lines may produce high yields while the other produces a resistance to a common plant disease. The crossing of the two lines creates a plant with both high yields and a resistance to the disease. This has obvious benefits, but it also has certain downsides. The principle case against F-1 hybrid seeds is that they will not “breed true”. This means collected seeds from the plants will not produce a plant similar to their parent. Often these second generation seeds produce plants with little or no vigor. In essence, this means the grower is required to purchase new seed each year.

As an aside, it should be mentioned that hybrids are very different than Genetically Modified plants. GM plants are another story entirely and their creation involves direct manipulation of the plant genes (more similar to Frankendoodles). Genetic engineers can directly insert genes that come from bacteria or animals (Bt corn:) to increase a plant’s vigor. I should mention that we don’t use any GM seeds whatsoever. This will probably have to be discussed later with scientists on hand.

Open-pollinated seeds are those which are able to breed true and produce plants similar to their parents, thus allowing seed saving. It should be noted that cross-pollination between varieties would change the genetic makeup of open-pollinated seeds, leading to changes in subsequent generations. For example, growing Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkin and New England Pie Pumpkin in the same garden could lead to a medium sized pumpkin that tastes like tires.
Heirloom plants are simply old-time, open-pollinated varieties. I don’t believe there is a consensus how old a variety must be before it can be considered an heirloom. It is often cited as somewhere between 10,000 and 50 years ago. Heirloom varieties are often considered better tasting than new varieties or hybrids. Keeping heirlooms viable means protecting the bio-diversity of our food crops. If you don’t think this is important, read about the Irish Potato Famine Heirloom varieties are becoming more available. The more people growing these seeds, the better chance of their continued survival (

When possible, we chose open-pollinated seeds so the option of seed collecting remains open. Seed collecting is a beautiful thing: it closes the loop on the growth cycle, cuts costs and further connects you to your garden. Starting seeds that I have collected is unequivocally one of my favorite things to do. Some people have very strong feelings against hybrid seed (and dependence on seed companies), many of their sentiments I can share, but there are times that we choose this seed over open-pollinated varieties. Such a situation may arise if we have had terrible trouble with a crop in the past. For example, peppers. Peppers have a difficult time ripening in the cool nights of the pacific northwest. If a hybrid is available that ripens better in cool weather, our options seem to be: stop growing peppers, continue growing peppers that produce no peppers, or try a hybrid. I do think that we should be growing plants that naturally thrive in our local climate, but…these things are complicated. At this point, we have selected open-pollinated (esp. heirloom) varieties when possible, and chosen hybrid seed on selected crops when our past experiences taunted us into submission. Maybe I will have more to say about exactly what we selected this year once the order is totally finished...

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