Heirlooms are Great but…

Some heirlooms like January King Cabbage grow great for us.

Some heirlooms like January King Cabbage grow great for us.

I’ve kind of always been a purist when it comes to what I grow in my garden. I prefer heirlooms, the rarer the better, over pretty much everything else, including regular open pollinated plants.

So here’s the lowdown on all the different types of seed you will come across:

Open Pollinated seed means that when you grow that plant you can save the seed and the offspring will be true to form.

Heirlooms are all open pollinated but are generally older varieties. The age of the variety is debatable but I generally think of heirlooms as pre-WWII varieties. Why WWII? That was about the time we started to transition to growing food with petrochemicals and started breeding more for uniformity and shipping ability, rather than taste and nutrients.

Hybrid seed is just a cross between two varieties. It’s not transgenic (also called GMO), so let’s just get that straight. If you see (F1) next to the seed’s name or description, it means it is the first generation of the cross. Of course you can continually save seed through multiple generations and end up with a stable variety – and that is when you get an open pollinated plant.

I have come to the realization, however, that maybe all heirlooms isn’t the best way to go. Sometimes you have to choose between being able to successfully grow it or buying it at the store. I would much rather purchase a hybrid and grow it here than have to resort to buying it at the store because the heirloom varieties available just don’t work for my area.

The heirlooms plants that I’ve come to find don’t work for me are mostly Brassicas. While heirloom varieties of cabbage and cauliflower do great for me, it’s the Brussels sprouts and broccoli that I have a horrible time with. Usually I get a very small harvest of broccoli and absolutely nothing from the Brussels sprouts.

Since the selection of available heirloom varieties for both broccoli and Brussels sprouts is very limited, and I’ve tried most of them, I think it’s time for me to finally admit that I need to switch to using hybrids for these two crops.

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  1. Oh man, I hate to admit it, but I’m with you on the broccoli and brussels sprouts. Hybrids from the garden center grow beautifully but I can’t seem to find an heirloom that will work for me. I’m sure it’s a matter of finding a variety that’s been successfully grown here for generations, but the work and loss involved in that has proven too much. Perhaps we need a group of gardeners to coordinate and each try out a different heirloom variety of brassica every year then save seeds and report back. I’m not quite ready to give up but I did cheat this year.

  2. I just came to this same conclusion myself, but felt guilty for lowering my standards. But, like you said, it’s not lowering my standards because even hybrid home grown veggies are better than store bought. Thanks for helping ease my guilt.

  3. Hybrids can also be alluring when they offer something like resistance to diseases like powdery mildew. So far I’ve resisted the temptation, but am reconsidering after my peas, pumpkins and watermelons were lost to it this year, despite following all the rules.

  4. I think of it this way: if I grow only OP heirlooms, and so do nearby gardeners, but we choose different varieties, then we might still wind up with *hybrids* when saving seeds.
    (It definitely happened this year, when my “Moon & Stars” watermelon seeds grew melons with a regular old stripy rind. They were still productive, sweet and delicious!) My neighbors don’t bat an eye when I grow veggies in the front yard, so I think a second-generation seed surprise is a small price to pay!

    • I will usually still take precautions to keep OP plants from cross pollinating even if I’m only growing one variety. You just never know what else is being grown around you.

  5. I’ve always grown a variety of heirlooms, open-pollinated, and hybrids. I’m serious about growing food for our household, but I also deal with limited space and physical disabilities. I choose to grow whichever varieties that will help me be successful in my own garden. Do I wish that I could grow all open-pollinated varieties? Yes! But, given my limitations, it’s more important that I grow what actually works best for me.

  6. I got over my purist tendencies after reading the chapter on seeds in Steve Solomon’s book Gardening when it counts. That chapter alone makes the book worth buying. I love my brassica hybrids! Jade Cross hybrid Brussels sprouts are a great reliable short season variety.

  7. I’ve had great success with some open pollinated broccolis, though not necessarily heirloom varieties. We can’t seem to grow a decent Brussels sprout with any kind of a seed, much to my wife’s chagrin.

  8. I have stuck largely to OP seeds with a preference for heirlooms. But I’ve already decided that next year I’m going to try a hybrid sweet corn, in the hopes of getting a more productive crop that is less starchy. I may very well try some hybrid Brassicas this year too, as I get repeatedly mixed results. OP/heirloom leafy Brassica usually do quite well for me, but my cabbages are rather inconsistent and I’ve yet to grow a really successful head of broccoli or cauliflower.
    I agree – I’d rather grow it myself than end up having to purchase it (which will likely be hybrid anyway, organic or not).

  9. *nods*

    Yeah, I came to that conclusion a while ago. I have terrible problems with verticillium wilt in my soil. If I don’t plant hybrids, I do not get tomatoes or eggplants. And OP sweet corn is a problem because the pollen shows up weeks before the silks. And I don’t have enough land to counter that with a large plot or staggered plantings.

    So I grow the OP varieties I can and use hybrids when I need to. That’s the best I can think of…

    Let me know what hybrid broccolis and sprouts you like.

    ~ Birgitt

  10. Linda Brodie says:

    I like op or heirloom plants too, but a friend of mine (a Master Gardener) once said “plants are hybridized for a reason…if it’s disease-ridden or just won’t grow, what good is it to you.” I hadn’t thought about it that way. Now, I use op or heirloom seed when it works for me, and hybrids when it seems necessary.

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