Vegetable Varieties: Hybrid vs. Heirloom


This is Part 4 in a series on Fall Gardening.  Part 1 can be read here; Part 2 can be read here; and Part 3 can be read here.

While shopping for your fall garden seeds you’ll notice that seeds generally  fall within two categories.  You’ll have your heirloom seeds, and you’ll have your hybrids.

Cherokee Purple Seedlings

Heirloom, as everyone knows refers to those plants that have been handed down from generation to generation.   They produce beautiful, unique crops and often have an interesting story behind them.  Did you know for example that Cherokee Purple tomatoes originated over a hundred years ago by (guess who) the Cherokees but remained virtually unnamed and undetected until  the ‘90s, when a tiny packet of seeds was sent through the mail with small note containing their origin?

The benefits of using heirloom seeds:

Heirloom seeds are open pollinated meaning the seeds can be harvested, and when planted will remain true to the mother plant.  This saves the gardener from having to purchase new seeds every year.

Heirlooms also provide the gardener with a wide variety of unique choices, shapes, and sizes often within the same plant.  (However, this can become a disadvantage to the gardener who wants all tomatoes or cucumbers for example to be uniform in size.)

Heirloom Lettuces

There are a few disadvantages to using heirlooms:

Sometimes heirloom varieties do not produce as well in volume as hybrids.  My beloved Cherokee purple tomatoes for instance cannot be counted on to deliver a bumper crop every year.  We use them mostly for slicing, or for our tomato pie and rely on other varieties for canning and freezing.

Heirloom varieties are not always very disease tolerant, and not all adapt well to certain climate conditions.  This is why some gardeners consider using hybrids which brings me to the next part of this post:

Hybrids are those plants that are produced when two compatible plants with specific characteristics are cross bred in order to produce one plant with the best of both worlds.

Hybrids should not be confused with plants that are genetically modified.  Hybridization is an age old technique of simply cross breeding plants, the genetic structure is not in any way altered.

The benefits of using hybrids:

Most are bred to exhibit some sort of resistance whether it is to disease, drought, cold or a combination of the above making them a bit easier to care for.  (Bear in mind however that a disease resistant plant is not a plant immune to disease.)

A gorgeous hybrid Rudbeckia.

Hybrids also tend to produce and perform very well in the garden, usually producing a crop that is uniform in size;

and hybrid seeds are generally less expensive than heirlooms.

The disadvantages of using hybrids:

The seeds harvested will not result in another hybrid, they will just revert back to something resembling the parent plant.  That being said, I have a hybrid petunia that self seeded in my yard and is blooming beautifully.  So while they may reproduce the same qualities, they can’t be relied upon to do so.

What should a gardener choose?

In my opinion this depends on the goals you have for your garden.  If you are wanting a system that is completely self sustaining then using open pollinated seeds is the best way to go.

If you are wanting an easy care garden that will be a bit more disease resistant, pest tolerant, and can withstand extreme weather conditions, you might want to consider using  hybrid plants. 

For me personally: I use both with the majority of my plants being heirloom.  Our long range plan is to have a huge garden with a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals.   Purchasing seeds can (believe it or not) get to be expensive.   On the other hand we live in an area that gets extreme weather conditions on both sides of the equation and pests are pretty prominent.  In some cases we’ve felt it would be better to have some rather than none in which case we’ll use a hybrid that has been specifically recommended for our climate.

What do you prefer to use in your garden and why?

For seeds I recommend the following:

Seed Saver’s Exchange**- SSE has a wonderful selection of interesting heirloom vegetables, herbs, and a few ornamentals.  All of their seeds are open pollinated.  I have to add though that I have a few heirloom onions growing right next to the ones from Park Seed and a few did not germinate.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds** – I occasionally use Baker Creek if I can’t find what I want through SSE.  They have a wide variety of rare and heirloom vegetables, herbs, and a few ornamentals; all open pollinated.


**not an affiliate. I’m just a huuuuge fan.

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Vegetable Varieties: Hybrid vs. Heirloom — 8 Comments

  1. Hello! Thanks for the information you shared about heirloom and hybrids. It’s hard to determine which variety is best until you try them. Some heirlooms work well in my garden and so do some hybrids. It’s a trial and error process. I’m still in the process! Thanks for the recommendations of seed suppliers, as well! Blessings from Bama!

    • Thank you! I’m glad to hear from someone else who uses both as well. Heirlooms are wonderful and I wish we could use them exclusively but sometimes they just don’t work well for us in our climate.

  2. I always get some tomatoes from the previous year’s fallen seeds. I never touch these, just let them grow. I don’t even water them, but they seem so much healthier then my new plants…thanks for the information!

  3. Wow… you have really gotten into gardening. It is not just a hobby for you. I just started organic gardening last year. This year my plants produced like they were on steroids. I am not complaining… Love it.

  4. I love your gardening posts Jenny as you are quite knowledgeable….don’t hate me because I don’t exclusively use Heirlooms we use quite a few hybrids too but the bugs and the climate in our area are not always cooperative. But now that I see in your posts hybrids aren’t all that awful I feel a little bit better about us ;)….Thanks so much for linking up to “The Ole’ Saturday Homesteading Trading Post”!

    • Oh we use both. I’m eyeing a hybrid eggplant because I’ve had such bad luck in the past. I’m actually going to try growing both a hybrid and an heirloom to see which does better.