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Heirloom, Open-Pollinated & Hybrid Seed – What’s the Difference?


It’s garden planning time! If you are a new gardener, seed types can be confusing. What you buy or trade for will depend on your food production needs and maybe your politics. Do you want to save seed? Do you want the most produce for your money? Do you care about GMOs and organic gardening? Not sure?

Here’s a basic run down of the different types of seeds.

Heirloom seeds are the oldest varieties that have been shared within communities and passed down through generations of a family. Some strains are hundreds of years old! You know those seeds your grandma grew and gave you? Those are heirloom seeds. She probably got them from HER grandmother! Keep growing them out, and passing them down through the generations to keep these old varieties alive.

Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce dates back to 1850, and Brandywine tomatoes go back to 1885. These are heirloom varieties.

All heirlooms are open-pollinated (OP). Open pollination is the fertilizing of plants by birds, bugs, wind, rain and even human contact. OP seed can be grown out with the same result year after year, and these are the plants you save seed from.

Not all OP seed is heirloom, though. A plant you have been growing out to seed for a few years to cultivate the best fruit is OP, but it’s not heirloom, unless you started with an heirloom variety. There are many OP varieties that do not have the long heritage of heirlooms.

Hybrid seeds are the product of cross-pollinating two separate parent plants with specific characteristics to be more uniform and productive. There is a greater amount of diversity in OP plants and fruit due to pollination, weather, soils and other external factors. The uniformity and reliability of hybrids is less of a risk for market gardeners and small farms, and those may be qualities home gardeners would like, too.

You can’t save seed from a hybrid plant, though! If you were to save it and grow it out the following year, you would produce one of the parents, not the original plant. That is the main drawback in this era of food insecurity and the need to save seed.

Determine your needs. If you are interested in carrying on the tradition of heirloom and OP seed, then purchase or swap for those. Research seed saving techniques, read books, go to workshops and/or pick the brains of your local growers.

If you want to put food up for your family for winter, you might consider hybrids for high production. Hybrids are also good if your garden space is limited. Organic hybrids are now available, and you can even create your own.

Hopefully that helps!

The paste tomatoes are from organic hybrid seed, and the yellow cherry tomatoes are from organic open-pollinated seed.
Neither are heirlooms.

home grown tomatoes


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