Given that hybrid seeds can cost more than three times as much as open-pollinated seeds, are they worth it?
Hybrid seeds are not genetically modified; when plants with desired characteristics are intentionally bred, they are isolated from insects and wind and are hand-fertilized with each other to produce seeds that hopefully contain these characteristics to carry through to the next generation. When these seeds grow out and their flowers are also isolated and hand pollinated and prove to have these qualities, they have become “hybridized”, or inbred. Sometimes they have become so inbred that they are sterile and don’t produce seeds.
Hybrid seeds often out-perform open pollinated, exhibiting striking vigor, faster growth and tastier, more abundant yields. For example, one gardener harvested 280 one and a half pound “Better Boy” hybrid tomatoes from a single vine. “Melody” hybrid spinach produces early, prolific greens, and “Brock Imperial” hybrid asparagus sends up 30 per cent more spears that are thicker and more tender than standard, open pollinated varieties.
Hybrid varieties perform well for a variety of reasons. They usually have improved disease resistance, and can be designed to be more compact for today’s gardener with limited space. For example, “Little Gem” romaine grows only six inches tall and four inches around, yielding heavily when planted only six and a half inches apart. Because it also grows quickly, more plants can be grown in succession, increasing the harvest. Not all hybrids grow more quickly, though, so it pays to read the description. Our short summers dictate that crops quick to reach maturity will do best here, so early maturing hybrids may fill the bill.
One hybrid tomato that produces excellent tomatoes and viable seed every year for me is “Early Girl”. Next on my list is a hybrid spinach because I haven’t had much success with the open pollinated varieties.
Most hybrid seeds will strongly produce decent vegetables, while open pollinated may not. Decent storage allows the seeds to germinate well for several years, reducing the cost. Still, we are told that seed from these hybrids probably won’t grow true to the parent stock, if they grow at all.
Steve Solomon learned one way to skirt this problem by growing a similar, but open-pollinated variety alongside a row of hybrids. Both rows developed seeds that Solomon harvested and re-sowed the following year, alongside another row of the hybrid. Both rows again developed seeds that Solomon kept re-sowing each year and now has open-pollinated seeds carrying the same qualities as the hybrid.