Getting Started: What the heck is a hybrid seed?

I promised in the last post that I’d explain the difference between heirloom seeds and hybrid seeds (and why you shouldn’t plant seeds from a tomato you bought at the grocery store). If you don’t care about what varieties you grow, and don’t plan to save any seeds, this post is probably not very important for you. But if you are growing with a goal in mind and hope to save seeds it may help you decide which seeds to start with. 

I have admittedly been using the term “heirloom” as a catch-all for open-pollinated seeds (and I’m not the only one who does this). They technically aren’t the same thing, but I find the word “heirloom” a lot easier to remember than “open-pollinated”, and the most important thing when selecting seeds is understanding the difference between open-pollinated and hybrid seeds.

Run a Google search for “heirloom vs hybrid tomato seeds” and you will likely come across a lot of posts from hippies about why heirloom seeds are superior and more “natural” while hybrid seeds are garbage. This is not really true. Heirloom plants are those that have been cultivated for generations and maintain some semblance of genetic “purity”, while hybrid means the seed is the result of deliberate cross-pollination (plant breeding) to create a plant with the desirable characteristics of more than one variety. It’s like the tomato version of a tangelo. Open-pollinated means that the seeds came from a plant that was naturally pollinated – e.g. by bees or wind. Technically all true heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms, even though the terms are often used interchangeably. It is also possible that even the heirlooms/open-pollinated varieties we grow and save seeds from have become hybrids thanks to the bees in our garden – but I’ve personally never had noticeable issues with this. For a more fulsome explanation, check out this article.

Hybrids are usually created to give the people what they want, which is why some tomato snobs will say that they are boring and lack flavour. This is true if we’re talking about the hybrids that are bred in order to survive cross-continental truck rides from Florida fields to the McDonald’s factory without bruising or over-ripening, but there are also a lot of excellent hybrid tomatoes available that taste just as good as heirlooms, such as Celebrity and Juliet (which I recommended in my last post). There are also many visually stunning open-pollinated tomatoes that have no flavour, such as Yellow Pear and Indigo Rose. As well, there are hybrids available of “known” heirloom varieties out there, so you need to be aware of your source if you are planning to save seeds later in the summer. The general rule is: save open-pollinated seeds, don’t save hybrid seeds. And unless the seed says “heirloom” or “open-pollinated” on the package, assume it’s a hybrid.

When you save the seeds of a hybrid plant, there is no guarantee that the seeds will produce fruit at all, and best-case-scenario it will likely not produce fruit that is quite the same as what you grew the previous year. Two summers ago I saved some seeds from what appeared to be an unusually productive Brandywine that I bought from a small nursery at the Farmers’ Market. I planted it last year and it never flowered, which was a waste of energy, space, fertilizer, and water. I just figured “Brandywine is an heirloom” without realizing that it’s such a popular heirloom (probably the most well-known, in fact) that there could be hybrid varieties out there. It is likely what I bought was actually a Big Brandy hybrid or something, but because Brandywine is a recognizable variety it was being sold as such.

Most heirloom varieties will not be super productive, though I generally find cherry-type heirlooms to produce more than larger heirloom varieties. They may also be more prone to cracking, disease, pests, etc. because these traits have not been “bred out” – but they will be interesting and fun, and my all-time favourite tomato (ananas noire, below) is an heirloom. I personally love growing interesting heirloom/open-pollinated varieties, but I supplement them with hybrids to make sure I get an adequate yield.

If your only goal is to maximize your harvest and make a bunch of tomato sauce, grow hybrids. If your only goal is to have fun and make colourful salads to post on Instagram, grow heirlooms. If your goal is a mix of the two, grow some of each!

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