Hybrids, Heirlooms, and GMO

Selecting varieties of vegetables can seem daunting when all you want is a slicing tomato and there are nine slicer options on the shelf. How to choose? Why should you pick one variety over another, and what’s the difference between hybrids and heirlooms, anyway?Tomato

Hybrids: Plants are a cross between varieties as a result of pollination & selective breeding. Each parent plant brings different characteristics to the table (just like people!) and the resulting plants have a combination of desirable traits. Generally, hybrid plants have increased disease resistance, increased yield over other varieties, and their fruit ripens more quickly than heirloom fruits. They may also be bred for unique colors, shapes, or sizes. Keeping in mind that it took two different plants (with specific traits) to create the hybrid, it makes sense that seed saved from these plants will not produce the same “children”– just as a child is not a clone of either parent. Humans have been hybridizing plants for nearly as long as we have been planting them and it is a very natural way to produce plants that match our current needs.heirlooms

Heirlooms or Heritage: Plants meet specific criteria to qualify:
1) Variety has been in production for over 50 years or was grown prior to 1940
2) Plant can be open-pollinated to create viable seed (many hybrids produce sterile seed, since the resulting seed creates undesirable traits)
3) Seeds produced will create a plant that is similar to the parent plant
Heirlooms are maintained for many reasons, and the foremost of these is flavor. Fruits often have a shorter “shelf life”, generally take longer to ripen, and the plants have less disease resistance than hybrids (which have been bred to combat these challenges). But, oh! The sweetness and flavors are amazing, and it is well worth including them in your garden. It is also nice to know that you are experiencing flavors and colors that your ancestors would recognize.corn

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMO: Plants (as well as animals & bacteria) have had genes added or subtracted to their DNA by means of genetic engineering. This is done to increase yield, pest/disease resistance, herbicide resistance, or to create otherwise desirable traits. It is extremely rare for the home gardener to encounter GMO plants or seeds. The breeding is expensive, and consequently most of the research is centered on commercial cash crops such as corn, canola, soy, or cottonseed. Studies have shown both positive and negative impacts of this engineering and public opinion remains mixed.  GMO crops are grown as large scale, commercial farming crops.  It is extremely unlikely for the home gardener,  or even your local garden center, to have the option to purchase a GMO plant or seed, a concerned gardener can opt to purchase only seed that specifies that it is non-GMO.

Back to the original question— why should you choose one type over another? Most of us here at Echter’s grow a mix of heirloom and hybrid varieties. Those growing in containers will probably select hybrids, as there are varieties that have been bred to stay petite and won’t take over a patio. Gardeners with a lot of space and the willingness to wait until late summer for fruit will likely choose heirlooms. Mountain gardeners need plants can handle a chill and fruit quickly. Most of us fall somewhere in between and want some early hybrid fruits and a smaller, later crop of heirlooms. Mixing and matching your varieties will give you a steady stream of fruit throughout the summer and encourage you to try something new each year.

Seven Easy Gardening Activities for Kids

We all know that kids and dirt go together like peas and carrots, which makes gardening an easy activity to encourage. It can be an amazing journey of discovery to realize that sun and water will create sunflowers and watermelons, and there are a lot of wonderful activities to investigate year-round. Young children can help with seeding and planting, and older children can take it a step further by learning how plants grow and trying experiments in the garden. After all, much of gardening is experimentation, and that’s what makes it fun!

1) Try starting some seeds indoors! Choose larger seeds like beans, peas, or marigolds that are easy to handle and count. Even if these aren’t plants that make it into the garden, it’s fun to count the number of days until they come up and watch them grow. Older children can measure how tall they grow in a week, or how long it takes for each set of leaves to form and expand.

2) Direct seeding of easy annuals—we’ve all encountered plants that seem to grow of their own accord every year. Cheery pink or white cosmos are quick to start, as are marigolds, sunflowers, and pumpkins. Zinnias come in a riot of colors. Bachelor buttons and nasturtiums can be tucked in to fill out bare spots.

3) A plot of one’s own—foster a sense of responsibility by creating a small plot for each child. A 3’ stretch along the fence can be a trial garden for different kinds of flowers or vegetables, and can be decorated with painted rocks or other handmade garden-themed crafts. Let each child choose their plants or seeds for a garden that is their own creation. Take picbean-tipitures of the progress and help behind the scenes as needed.

4) Living playhouse—it’s easy to grow a sheltered play space with either giant sunflowers or pole beans. Simply plant seeds in a circle big enough for two (or more!) people and be sure to leave a section that will eventually be a door. Once the plants are up, add tall stakes and tie them together at the top to form a cone shape. The seedlings will grow through the summer and create a shady nook by summer’s end.

5) Plant a fairy, gnome, dinosaur or toy garden! Miniature gardens are all the rage right now and they can easily be planted in the ground or in a container (to bring in for the winter months). Select small groundcover annuals and perennials for outdoor gardens. Wee houseplants in 2” pots are perfect for indoor landscapes. Miniature gardens can also be planted in a terrarium or former fish tank. The possibilities are endless! If toys end up in the garden, be sure that they are plastic, wood, or resin to stand up to the weather.


6) Create a habitatforbutterflies by choosing flowers and plants that either have a lot of nectar or tasty leaves. Butterfly larvae feed on specific plants (such as milkweed for monarchs) and adult butterflies feed on flower nectar. Try tracking the different types of butterflies you see in your yard.

7) Make a garden collage (or several over the season) to document what was spotted in the yard. Collect leaves, press flowers, and draw pictures to tell the story of this year’s garden. Older children can keep a garden journal and little ones can be prompted to chime in with an adult scribe.