While planning my first vegetable garden twelve years ago, I picked up a seed catalog and started flipping.
Two hours later, I put the catalog down, bleary-eyed and confused. How could there possibly be so many tomatoes to choose from? Should I choose a “Big Boy” or a “Mortgage Lifter” or another of the staggering number of options? Eventually, I made the decision by closing my eyes and pointing at the page.
If you’re facing the dilemma of choosing from hundreds of plant varieties, the first way to narrow down your options is by deciding whether you’ll choose heirloom or hybrid plants. It can seem mysterious, but the difference is pretty simple:
Heirloom vegetables or seeds refer to any type of seed that has been grown for a number of years (since 1940 or before seems to be the general rule) and passed down from gardener to gardener. Heirloom plants are "open pollinated," which means the plants are pollinated without human intervention, so by wind or insect pollination.
Though seed catalogs often sell “heirloom” plants, purists will tell you that true heirloom seeds are generally found through seed exchanges or passed directly down from other gardeners.
Plants grown from heirloom seeds may not be as predictable as hybrid plants, but many gardeners prefer them for their flavor, and many also appreciate the idea of preserving the vegetable’s heritage.
Hybrid plants are created when breeders cross-pollinate different plants in order to maximize their best features, such as yield, size, resistance to disease, and taste. Seed saved from hybrid plants isn't likely to produce a new generation with the same qualities. Instead, the second generation may look something more like one of the parent plants used to create the hybrid.
Hybrids tend to be reliable, and will produce uniform produce – and a lot of it, generally – but you may lose out on flavor. And you’ll have to shell out money next year to buy new seed.
Keep in mind that hybrid seeds are not the same as genetically-modified (GMO) seeds! Major seed companies like Burpee and Gurney’s promise not to sell genetically-modified seeds, and this Safe Seed Resource list links to dozens of companies that sell GMO-free as well as organic seeds.