Hybrids or open-pollinated? Which should you grow?

Every vegetable gardener is faced with this question at least once in their life, and it's a question that is not easily answered in one sentence. Thus, we have written this article to help our customers learn a bit more about this topic.

Victory Seed Company is at its core a family-run company dedicated to preserving our country's rich past by protecting, growing, preserving and selling historical heirloom and open-pollinated (OP) vegetables, herbs and flowers. Many hundred varieties are common in gardens around the country thanks to our efforts. Victory Seed Company has purposefully not sold any hybrids until late 2022, preferring instead to focus exclusively on the heirloom side of the gardening industry.

In late 2022 we have started adding some hybrids (F1s) to our collections. In our travels to visit gardens around the country, we consistently see the excitement in the people who are growing newly released hybrid varieties. Many of these gardeners are growing new hybrids while also growing many tried-and-true heirlooms. There is room for both in most gardens, and let's face it, many of the new hybrids are indeed envy-worthy, exhibiting traits that you simply can't find in most OP varieties.

So, we asked ourselves why we should limit the choices of our customers? Our goal is to preserve the past while helping gardeners succeed in the present, and often a hybrid is the right choice for certain situations. Why shouldn't we offer the most sought-after hybrids alongside our catalog of almost 2,000 heirloom varieties? Many of our existing growers who supply much of our seeds already have the capability to produce hybrids for us, so we decided to give it a try.

Let's take a closer look at some common questions:

Q: What are the advantages of open-pollinated varieties?

The benefits are numerous.

  1. Seed saving. You can save seeds from OP varieties and grow them again next year, and they will produce stable results just like the original. Each year you can grow them over and over, saving seeds each year, and you will always get the same plant. With a bit of effort on your part, you can buy seeds of a variety only once and never again have to buy seeds of that variety. Relying on yourself to provide each year's gardening seeds is a richly rewarding experience for us and for many thousands of our customers.

  2. Huge variety in colors, sizes, shapes and flavors. Nearly everyone knows that the best tomato you can serve your family is the heirloom variety grown in your own backyard. It just can't be beat. It may not be uniform, it may not be the easiest thing to grow, it may not resist every disease, but dang it, it sure does look and taste great! The flavor of many heirloom vegetables is reward enough for the extra work and time that goes into producing it.

  3. There is also the historical aspect; many people grow heirloom OP varieties in order to form a personal connection to our rich history. There is something truly awesome about growing a tobacco plant that is genetically the same crop that was grown in this land a century before the Declaration of Indepence was written. Many tomatoes, watermelons, squashes and others have interesting stories that relate to the people who grew and preserved them decades and sometimes centuries ago. Growing heirlooms is a way to have a rich experience from the past in your own backyard.

  4. Less expensive. OP seeds are cost effective for us to produce. They don't require high labor costs; we can simply have them grown out in a big field, separated from other varieties by enough distance, or in many cases using bagging techniques, to ensure genetic purity by preventing crossing. This results in much less expensive production costs, which savings we pass directly on to our customers. Customers also save money if they save seeds from the OP varieties, saving themselves from having to buy new seeds year after year.

Q: What about hybrids? Are their advantages to choosing them over the OPs?

  1. Hybrid vigor. Although there is no strong consensus among scientists who study the genetics of hybrids, there is no question that the first generation of any cross results in what is called "heterosis, or hybrid vigor. The resulting cross tends to produce noticable increases in stature, biomass fertility, and disease resistance. Gardening environments where OP varieties may struggle will often produce bountiful harvests when hybrids are grown instead.

  2. Uniformity. The end result of a hybrid plant is generally extreme uniformity. While an OP tomato variety might produce fruits of many different sizes, the hybrid counterparts will typically produce the same shape, size and color across all plants grown.

  3. Higher yields. According to the National Gardening Association, hybrid vigor translates into double the yield over OP varieties in the case of some vegetables.

  4. Disease resistance. While many OP vegetables do offer good disease resistance, the gardener will find many F1 vegetables that are produced specifically with resistance as a goal. If your garden has certain soil-borne diseases, you now have the ability to search out varieties that specifically resist those problems.

  5. Popularity. This might seem like an odd point to raise, but the reality is that much of the new exciting work being done in vegetable breeding is resulting in F1 varieties. For example, each year the All-America Selections program tests new varieties in test gardens all around the country and the winners are awarded AAS Winners status. These new varieties are always exciting and worth growing, and they are almost always F1 hybrids.

Q: I noticed the hybrids are more expensive, and you get fewer seeds per packet. Why is that?

As we wrote earlier, OP varieties are pretty easy to produce seed for. You grow them out, let them pollinate themselves, and then you harvest the seed. Many hybrids, on the other hand, require extensive skilled labor. To make the seed, workers have to go flower by flower, opening them and introducing the pollen to make the cross. They mark these and come back at harvest time to get the seeds. The labor costs of producing some hybrid tomatoes, for example, can reach unbelievable amounts. This is why you will see some seed packets contain only 10 seeds but cost $5. Expensive! It's worth noting that our germination standards are extremely high, so you can count on getting good germination from these expensive seeds. A packet of 10 tomato seeds should result in at least 9 actual germinated plants.

Q: Will your company still preserve OP varieties?

Of course! The addition of hybrids does not harm in any way our seed preservation work, which continues as it always has. We are excited to expand our seed preservation work in major ways in the years to come, and we invite you to stay tuned for news on that front in the months ahead.

Q: Will hybrids interfere with the quality of the OP seeds Victory Seed Company sells?

No. We have quite a large number of growers of our seeds, and each of our growers meets or exceeds our rigorous standards to ensure seed purity. Fields where hybrids are grown are entirely separated from the OP fields. In many cases, we have growers who produce only hybrids for us and nothing else, and vice versa with the OP varieties.

Q: Are hybrids GMO?

No. Hybrids are simply a controlled cross between two compatible parent plants within the same species or genus. GMOs, on the other hand, are lab-created organisms that may combine genes from entirely different species, which is a process completely impossible in nature. When you hear about a potato that has genes from a jellyfish, for example, that's a GMO.

Victory Seed Company was one of the earliest signers of the Safe Seed Pledge, and we have pledged that we will not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.

Q: Do certain varieties tend to perform better as F1s?

Yes, the hybrid vigor tends to be most noticable in cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc) and sweet corn. Other plants like squash, melons, cucumbers and tomatoes tend to have much less noticable difference in vigor.

Well, that was a long article to write, but if you made it this far we congratulate you for educating yourself on this interesting topic. If you want to learn more about hybrids vs. OPs, check out this very interesting article by the National Gardening Association.