Are you a guilty gardener? I mean, do you feel guilty? Do you feel guilty for doing things that aren’t considered gardetanically pure? Are you one of those that is not convinced that hand pulling every weed is the best option? Or that heirloom seeds are always the best choice? Do you purchase your seeds in privacy, so that no one will know what you are actually getting? It’s time to come out into the sunlight. A little simple discussion of plant genetics and of terminology could give you the freedom you have been looking for.
One does not have to have be working on a university degree to learn about things. If you are interested enough and willing to dig through a few studies, read a couple of books, as well as compare claims from different points of view, you can learn about plant genetics. In fact, in a classroom, the student may not be aware of the biases of the teacher. A student may not know to question assumptions the teacher has. But you do, so you can be very effective at evaluating things. You can have your radar on about who would gain from various ways of doing things. You can question how certain results can be extrapolated into the future. Then, you can decide what it all means to your gardening. And since we are talking about gardening, let’s limit the scope of the discussion to plants for now.
The first thing to understand about the word “hybrid” is that is just a way to designate the result when two types of anything that are already genetically compatible have formed offspring. There is a wide range of how easily that can happen, whether the results are pleasing to anyone, and whether or not the offspring can also reproduce. All hybrids are produced through natural processes. The union may be helped along to varying degrees, but it is without manipulation of genetic material or DNA beyond what could happen in the plant without human interference. In most cases, it could happen randomly in the wild, but when people want to be sure to obtain certain characteristics, the environmental factors can be controlled. Hand pollinating something is using a method that wind or insects could do.
The second thing to understand is that “hybrid” is not the same as “genetically modified” or GM. Sure, a GM plant could be a hybrid in it’s own right, but being a hybrid does not make something GM. It’s a Venn diagram thing. For something to be GM, the chromosomes (or DNA) of the original plant must be altered by methods that require laboratory skill and equipment. Such plants can usually produce seed, but it is what is done to the original plant that makes them all GM.
So what does it all mean to the backyard gardener? To me it means that there is no harm in using hybrid seed. In fact, farmers have been using hybrid seed for thousands of years, having some who grow the seed and others who grow the crops. The plants grown for crops always tend to revert back to a variety of parent plant seed, so there is plenty of opportunity to “get back to the original,” as it were. Looking at it from a different angle, if someone is concerned about GM seed, there are hybrid seeds that are not GM. I can choose hybrid seed that suits my needs for my desired crop results in my environment.
I do like to grow some plants from seed that can be saved. Some plants have a strong enough tendency to modes of open pollination that produces like kind. However, even with those, I have noticed that I can get unexpected variations after a couple of years. It can be hard to isolate plants in a backyard well enough to be absolutely sure of exact duplication. It’s like the plants are trying to hybridize on their own!
Of course, squash and pumpkins are notorious for self-hybridization. It’s a wonder that they still exist as distinct plants types, the way they constantly try to “get together.” In spite of this, seed producers have managed to save “pure” seed for us for years. It just could give a person hope that any cross pollination from GM plants might not be as dastardly as predicted.
Here is a summary of where I have landed as far as seed types and why:
- Lettuce – I let it go to seed all the time, but I’m never quite sure how much like the parent plant it is. I like to try a lot of varieties, so it’s hard to say what may be developing in my backyard.
- Carrots – I have not had the patience yet to save this biennial seed
- Green beans – these have proven to be some of the easiest, surest seeds to save.
- Broccoli – I tried open pollinated broccoli a few times and was always very disappointed with the yield, so, I use hybrid seed every year now.
- Tomatoes – I have had mixed results saving open pollinated tomato seeds. They are supposed to be true to kind, but I seem to end up with cross pollination about 50% of the time after three years. Having them near cherry tomatoes seems to cause a lot of trouble.
- Zucchini and pumpkin – too tempermental to try to save seeds. Even having them at opposite sides of my acres has never been enough. Besides, I am finding that the hybrid variety of zucchini tend to produce more fruit in a smaller space and be more resistant to squash bugs.
- Potatoes and garlic – this isn’t seed saving, being propagated by tuber and bulb, so it’s easy.
- Corn – I have tried open pollinated corn for a handful of years now. I told my family to slap me if I ever try it again. Okay, maybe it would be okay for drying and grinding. Also, for popcorn. But for eating corn, it has to be hybrid sweet corn.
- Onions – still experimenting with varieties.
- Cabbage – has never gone to seed for me, but I am comparing some open pollinated and hybrid kinds this year.
- Hot peppers – will be saving hot paper lantern seeds this year for the first time. For the jalapenos, the hybrids seem to be much better.
- Bell peppers – I compared a few varieties for productivity this year and the hybrids won, hands down. That makes it hard to be inspired to save seed from the others.
- Sunflowers – this is the first year I have grown a variety that I am interested in saving seed from. It remains to be seen whether or not the seed produces like kind. I do know it is supposed to be open pollinated, but there are some wild sunflowers around.
- Cantaloupe, watermelon – have never tried to save seeds, so haven’t felt strongly about non-hybrids. Have been concerned about cross pollination.
- Cucumbers – I have not been successful in the seed extraction process. That doesn’t mean I won’t try again.
- Flowers – I have saved quite a number of flower seeds successfully, but I definitely have some volunteer hybrids in my landscaping too. It just depends on whether or not I have grown different varieties of the same basic flower.
Another term that is tossed around in the seed world is “heirloom.” It is such a pretty sounding word. Call me cynical, but I find it humorous that what it seems to mean is seeds that were popular a 100 years ago. I would be more impressed with seeds found in a pyramid or ice cave. Also, given what I know now about open pollination, I have to wonder how they can be sure it is the same seed. Also, seeds that have been grown in larger fields are generally excluded from the heirloom category, just…because. Somehow, originally, heirloom seeds were from your Grandma’s backyard and not a package.
So, there you have it. It might be more of a hybrid seed world than you knew! It might go on being a hybrid world in spite of all the things we try to do to control it. There is just something about plants that will not fully bend to the will of men.