One of the advantages of gardening for more than three decades is that you gain experience with so many varieties. In answer to the question of whether it is better to choose hybrid (F1) or open-pollinated seeds, I say both. It falls to you as a gardener to determine what you need in a variety, and there are places for both hybrids and heirlooms (historic open-pollinated varieties) in most gardens.
First, a quick review of terms, which apply only to seed-propagated crops. Open-pollinated varieties are so stable, genetically speaking, that you can grow and save your own seed, thus gaining a self-sufficiency edge and possibly breeding (through selection) a variety with superior adaptation to your particular garden. Hybrids are the first-generation result of planned crosses between specially selected parents. This planned parentage results in a single generation of seed with special characteristics, such as cold tolerance, fast maturity, disease resistance, productivity, fruit size or colour, the overall effect of which is often called "hybrid vigour." Sometimes you need it, and sometimes you don’t.
Best Open-Pollinated Crops
Three categories of popular garden vegetables will give good satisfaction when grown from high-quality open-pollinated varieties.
- Peas, beans, and most other legumes have been so carefully bred through selection that great-tasting, productive varieties with a high level of disease resistance are available as open-pollinated seeds.
- Leafy lettuces are so good that you can stick with open-pollinated varieties; many mesclun mixtures include open-pollinated strains escarole, kale, and mustard.
- Vegetables that are harvested when fully ripe, for example winter squash, melons and tomatoes. To keep a great strain going, all you must do is save some seeds from your best fruits every 3 years or so.
Best Hybrid Crops for Gardeners
But what if your summers are too short and cool to grow melons? For many gardeners, faster maturation times are the top reason for choosing hybrids. For example, where summers are short and cool, you will need fast-maturing hybrids of most vegetables of tropical ancestry, including peppers, tomato, aubergine, sweetcorn and butternut squash. With these crops, fast-maturing, cold-tolerant hybrids can mean the difference between success and failure.
You might also opt for hybrids when you need a specific form of disease resistance that is only available in a hybrid package. For example, most gardeners in warm climates need fusarium (F) resistance in tomato, because tomato fusarium is a common fungus in otherwise healthy organic soil where winters are mild. Genetic resistance to viruses of pepper is hugely important in many hot summer climates, and hybrids have it.
Then there are vegetables for which the open-pollinated varieties are simply not very good. "Good" is a subjective word, but in the case of broccoli and other cabbage family crops, the slow growth rate and lack of uniformity among many open-pollinated strains make them inferior to most hybrids. Justifiably, hybrid varieties of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower outnumber open-pollinated varieties by 10 to 1 in seed catalogues. The encouraging news is that organic seed of traditionally-bred cabbage family hybrids is increasingly available. The same goes for peppers, which greatly benefit from the hybrid edge.
Learn With Sure Things
A number of popular crops – carrots, beetroot, spinach, and bulb onions, for example – involve a choice between hybrid and open-pollinated varieties. If you are a new gardener, working in soil that is in the early stages of organic improvement, I suggest learning with hybrid peppers, squash and tomatoes, which are usually quite dependable and uniform, and thus easier to grow. Then, once you learn how a certain crop grows in your garden, start looking into open-pollinated strains to see if they are equally pleasing when grown in your garden.
My advice to experienced gardeners is to keep trying new things, and don’t let labels stand in your way. The longer I garden, the more excellent open-pollinated strains intrigue me, so a little more of my garden goes open pollinated every year. But I also know that my garden is at its best when the broccoli, peppers and sweetcorn growing there are hybrids.
[You may also be interested in Jeremy's articles on hybrid seeds: Part 1: My Year of Growing F1 Varieties and Part 2: Where Your Seed Comes From]
By Barbara Pleasant