Deciding between 20 types of Tomatoes can be a daunting task. Not only do I have to pick between a pages of tantalizing descriptions of different varieties but then theres the added task of deciding between Open Pollinated, Hybrid and Organic. What do those words even mean?! To answer these questions, we welcome Michelle Smith, board member of seeds of diversity.
When the seed catalogues start coming, with their colour-saturated pictures of beautiful, perfect tomatoes, it is best to put away your credit card or cheque book for a while to consider the best seed choices for you and your garden. For one thing, many people are confused about the difference between open-pollinated (OP) and hybrid seeds, or worry about inadvertently using genetically modified (GM) seeds. Should they use organic seed? Does it make a difference? A little education goes a long way when deciding.
First, of the three ways to produce seed, GM is not likely going to be one that home gardeners encounter. Producing this seed is very costly and requires expensive scientists and production facilities, so the companies that sell it concentrate their efforts to large-scale producers of commodities. Because of the difficulties with consumer acceptance, I do not know of a single catalogue for home-gardeners that contains GM seed. So relax. The debate about GM seed can wait for another day. THIS day we are happy and thinking about spring planting.
Hybrids are not high tech. We have been creating deliberate crosses for centuries. The idea of hybrids is that you take two very different parents – a short, productive but disease-prone tomato, say, and cross it with a tall, disease-resistant, unproductive tomato. The resultant seed will hopefully give you a medium-sized, disease-resistant, productive tomato. Accidental crosses are not always that helpful but good plant breeders can narrow their targeted traits very precisely by using highly in-bred parent lines. Still, it’s not high tech. Can be done with nothing but a paint brush. Hybrids can be a very useful tool in the garden – I use them myself, particularly for onions – but many of them require perfect soil, perfect nutrition and perfect weather for that award-winning performance. And they don’t breed true in the next generation. You have to make that cross over and over every time you want seed. So hybrids can be very expensive to purchase.
Open-pollinated or OP, by contrast, are cultivars that are grown as a population of a single variety. If kept from being cross-pollinated by other varieties, and if a large enough number are grown to prevent in-breeding, OP seeds will come true to type, year after year. In fact, through a little selection and adaptation, they will gradually become better and better suited to the precise growing conditions in your garden. They can sometimes be more variable than hybrids, sometimes not as productive at the top end. BUT their genetic variability means they will often cope with less than perfect conditions. Think of hybrids like the Olympic athletes of the plant world, needing special diets and training, great performers at one thing. OP’s are like the rest of us, just trying to get into a bit better shape, but managing to muddle through whatever is thrown at us. And because they are relatively easy to produce (you can do it at home), there are many, many more varieties to choose from.
Most seed catalogues will not designate OP seeds as such, but hybrids are always noted as F1 (a biology term) or simply called hybrids. You might have to read the description carefully in some of the less technical catalogues, like Vesey’s.
Another consideration is whether or not to use organically grown seed. If you are a cerified organic market gardener, there is strong pressure to do so if you possibly can, but this requirement is more ideological than scientific. There will be very little residue on seed – not really even measurable. There can be benefits to using seed that has been developed with an organic system in mind. It will likely be adapted to withstand a bit of weed pressure, scavenge nutrients more efficiently and so on. But the number of available varieties is small, and most are not adapted to the challenging conditions in Cape Breton, and variety selection is more important to success here than organic production of seed.
For really locally-adapted seed, you can patronize some of the smaller, regional seed companies (here’s a list). They often don’t have the large selection of the larger catalogues, but the good ones have seed that is well-suited to our region. There has been an explosion in recent years of small seed companies, and some are better than others. I strongly reccommned you keep initial orders small while you assess the quality of their seed and service. Some large companies, such as William Dam and Halifax Seed are very reliable and principled about the seed they offer, and are also deserving of your support. I hesitate to publicly reccommend specific smaller companies since I don’t want to undermine the efforts of newer start-up companies, which may, or may not, have good seed as they develop their skills and business plan. Ask me privately. I do purchase from most of them to some degree.
Now you can retrieve your cheque book, and get to work on your wish list. Try not to over-order. Fresh seed is often best, particularly for onions and carrots.
If saving your own seed sounds exciting to you, start with the self-fertile plants, like tomatoes, beans and peas (and read more here). Check out a Seedy Saturday or Sunday in your area for how-to workshops, or the Seeds of Diversity Canada’s web site, www.seeds.ca. Just remember to check the seed does not have F1 or hybrid in its description.
Michelle Smith, farms, bakes and saves seed in Skye Glen Cape Breton. She serves on the board and works in Seed Extension Education for Seeds of Diversity Canada. If you have some seedy questions for Michelle, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org