Among the considerations when starting a garden of your own is what kinds of plants and seeds to purchase. If you’re a beginning gardener, you might be surprised to hear that there can be several different choices when deciding what kind of seed or plant to purchase for each type of produce you buy.
The three main choices are these: heirloom, hybrid, and genetically modified. Each comes with a unique set of benefits and concerns that you’ll want to consider before making a final decision. Let’s review what each term means.
Heirloom seeds and plants are open-pollinated by insects, birds, and the wind. Plants grown from heirloom seeds can be allowed to flower and go to seed. Once that happens, you can collect the seeds and use them to re-plant the following year. They have also often become adapted to local climates, meaning they are likely to be more resistant to local pests, diseases, and extreme weather. Heirloom seeds and plants have been growing in popularity over the last few decades for North American and European gardeners.
Hybrid seeds and plants occur when plant breeders cross-pollinate plants to produce seeds that have desirable characteristics from each breed of plant. The primary reason for creating hybrid plants was to create a new breed that is better in some way—such as higher yield, better color, or more disease resistance. It is the most common type of seed and plant, and requires growers to purchase new seeds each year since seeds produced will not grow.
Genetically Modified seeds and plants are those that have been altered in a laboratory using molecular genetic engineering techniques. These might include practices like gene cloning or protein engineering. The goal of GM plants is the same as hybrid plants: to create a better plant. But the methods are obviously different. GM plants are often more resistant to disease and pests, extreme weather, and can be larger and more nutritious than normal.
Hybrid and GM plants have played a big role in helping the agriculture industry keep up with the country’s growing demand for food, but there are some concerns as well. One of the biggest problems is that by combining different varieties of plants into one large group, we may be decreasing our world’s biodiversity and leaving ourselves susceptible to a mass die-off of crops if something goes wrong. GM plants have also been accused of increasing food allergies and many people fear we do not know the full extent of the effects of genetically modified food. There is also the problem of having to purchase seeds again every year to continue growing—not a very sustainable model.
Heirloom plants are often the best option for home growers, since they yield grow-able seeds every year and the varieties have often been passed down through the generations. They are unique and help maintain the biodiversity that is lost with hybrid plants. Many also claim that they are superior in flavor and nutrients than other types of seeds.