The Great Seed Debate: Heirlooms vs. Hybrids

April 12th, 2011 | Posted by tjones in Gardening | Green Products | Living Green
From Flickr User: pmulloy2112

From Flickr User: pmulloy2112

Last week, the New York Times ran an article detailing a long-standing debate between the proponents of hybrid seeds and the proponents of heirloom seeds.  Its basic premise was that while heirloom seeds are growing in popularity, there are still distinct advantages to using hybridized seeds.

There actually is some truth in this.  I grew up on a farm, where our two principle products were lamb and vegetables.  I have seen my parents battle each year with pests and diseases – and chose hybridized plants that were bred to be resistant to some of these ailments, but still had the bright and robust flavor we came to expect from our garden vegetables.

To say a plant is hybridized, though, is not to say that it is designated as GMO – as genetically modified (that is, genetically modified using technologies beyond the simple cross-pollination techniques utilized by Gregor Mendel).  This seems to be a common point of confusion.  GMO also possess certain resistances to diseases and pests – or, in the case of Monsanto’s notorious line of Roundup-Ready seeds, to certain pesticides.

Heirloom seeds possess one very distinct advantage over many hybrid and GMO seeds: they are open pollinated, meaning that one can save the seeds from a plant one year to reuse the next.  Often, when plants are hybridized, the seeds are not plantable – meaning that one must re-purchase seeds the following year.  This ensures a reliance on the seed company for gardening needs, and a permanent income for companies selling hybridized or genetically-modified seeds.

But heirloom seed-saving faces its own challenges: that is, preserving the genetic integrity of the heirloom seeds year-to-year.  When browsing through an open-pollinated seed catalog, detailed instructions are given on how to ensure that the seeds do not cross-pollinate with other varieties and become hybridized.  Often these instructions include an isolation radius, i.e., “ensure there are no other tomato varieties growing within .25 miles.”  Because pollen can travel over long distances by wind or insect, saving seeds by avoiding cross-pollination can be difficult, if not impossible for persons living in more dense urban or suburban neighborhoods.

Of course, there’s no reason one can’t re-purchase heirloom seeds the following year, and many folks do for some important, but often overlooked, reasons: heirloom vegetables often have very vibrant flavors, and unique aesthetic qualities.  While hybridized seeds often have vibrant flavors of their own (a point which the Times is keen to point out), they are more commonly associated with the milder and standardized varieties found in supermarkets.  It’s likely this association that has given rise to the newfound popularity of heirloom seeds.  Who wants to risk growing the mealy, tough, perfectly spherical supermarket tomato when other succulent, curious-looking heirloom tomato seeds are now so readily available?

But even if the debate over hybrids and heirlooms continues on, there is one last important reason to support heirloom seed growers: they preserve the genetic diversity and uniqueness of many species of plants, and in doing so help to preserve our agricultural heritage.  Heirloom seeds connect us to old traditions and histories that many commercial, hybridized seeds lack.


Green Depot carries lots of green products with both heirloom and non-heirloom seeds for the home gardener.

Green Depot carries seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange.  Seed Saver’s mission is to preserve our diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.  Seed Savers also works to educate people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.  Green Depot carries flower, herb, and vegetable seeds from Seed Savers.  To see the different kinds of seeds we carry in each of these categories, you can visit our page for each category: flowers, herbs, and vegetables.

Easy-to-Grow Mushroom Garden: These growing kits allow you to grow up to two pounds of mushrooms over several weeks.  The mushrooms grow in recycled coffee grounds, which are a safe and healthy medium, and can be stored in a closet or refrigerator for several weeks before activating the mushrooms for growth, simply by placing the kit in an area that is room-temperature, and receives lots of fresh air and indirect sunlight.  The mushroomer then opens a slit in the exposed plastic and mists with water twice a day, yielding a mushroom bounty.

Rice Hull Gardens are a complete gardening set for indoors or outdoors.  The pots are made from rice grain husks and organic pigments – they are constructed from highly renewable resources.  The pots last for up to five years and are 100% biodegradable.  They come with many different kinds of herb seeds already contained within – available in lemon basil, lavender, parsley, oregano, garlic chives, heirloom sweet pepper, heirloom mini-tomato, and an organic basil boutique.

For lots more indoor and outdoor gardening products, you can visit our gardening department.

For green building materials, like eco insulation, as well as many other green products for a sustainable lifestyle, visit

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