The dawn of a new year (although I consider the REAL New Year’s Day to be the day after the winter solstice) means many gardeners are leafing through seed catalogs. It seems to be a good time for a bit of a rant on one of my favorite topics: open-pollinated vs. hybrid seeds.
Now, anyone who reads this blog or my book You Might be a Ranch Wife knows I prefer open-pollinated seeds. That’s because it means I’m not dependent on seed companies, I can save money, my plants are genetically diverse and less likely to all succumb to a particular insect or disease, and they really do taste good. However, I recently read an article written by a woman named Rebsie Fairholm, who was an independent plant breeder of the suburban garden variety. She may still be, but it looks like the last time her blog was updated was 2011. Fairholm pointed out a few other reasons to forgo hybrids.
Hybrids are often dependent on commercial growing techniques. That’s particularly true of the standard commercial varieties for big-scale farmers. They typically don’t produce as well unless loaded up with chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds and pesticides to control insects. It you’re an organic gardener, you might be able to get around this problem, but the odds are you’re going to have to work a lot harder for a good crop in many cases.
Hybrids from in-breeders (self-pollinating plants like lettuce, peas, beans and tomatoes) don’t really gain you anything. They don’t have the kind of hybrid vigor you get with something like corn – an out-breeder that requires other plants for pollination. However, the seed companies either increase the price or the seed packet or give you fewer seeds per packet because “it’s a hybrid!”
More and more seed companies are using various techniques that turn seeds into single-season annuals, either because they don’t set seeds or because the seeds are sterile. Monsanto’s “terminator” technology for GMO seed is the best-known. Terminator plants are only good for a single season, because they only produce sterile seed, giving Monsanto a monopoly on the plants. However, there are others. As of this writing, I am aware of seedless varieties of watermelons, cucumbers and tomatoes. Plants that are “self-cleaning – no deadheading required” sounds like a great labor-saving device in the flower garden, but it means you are dependent on the seed companies if you want to keep growing them.
Unlike Fairholm, who doesn’t boycott hybrids, I actively avoid them; I don’t care what their supposed advantages are. I realize I’m in the minority here, but at least I will always have a seed source.