I began looking through planting books and I thought I would share some things I had to learn today. The big thing I learned was the difference between heirlooms, cultivators, hybrids and GMOs.
The farm that we are currently on grows nothing but heirloom varieties. I think that is cool. We grew beans that came across on the Mayflower and flowers that Thomas Jefferson grew in his garden. Heirlooms are strains of a plant that have been around for a long time. People argue over how exactly to define how long it has to be carried on in order to be an heirloom, but lets just they have been around awhile. Heirlooms have to be open pollinated, but they are appropriately protected to maintain their heirloom gene line. One of the great things about heirloom varieties is that they have demonstrated for decades that they can grow a desirable crop in a certain location. The problem is that the location they grow well may not be the one where you live.
Hybrids are mixes of different strains of plants. So if you have a tomato that tastes really good and another that is resistant to blight, you cross pollinate them to come up with a new variety that you hope will taste really good AND be resistant to blight. Generally, if you can buy a hybrid, it has desirable characteristics from more than one line of genes. The problem is that it is sort of the mutt of the plant world. While the first generation cross may provide some desirable characteristics, you aren’t quite sure what you’ll get several generations down the line. You also tend to get a larger, more robust plant when you provide some genetic diversity, but you lose that as you continue to breed the same line of genes. That uncertainty makes hybrids potentially less sustainable. If you want a self sustaining farm or garden where you save all of your own seeds and never have to buy new seed stock, hybrids may work great… or you may end up with a bunch of undesirable mutts that you can’t give away. Or you’ll end up with a new variety that will become an heirloom after several decades of reproducing.
Cultivars are plants that are used for their offspring. Heirlooms are cultivars and the gene lines that are used to create hybrids are certainly considered cultivars. It is the generations after where plants are less likely to be used for their cultivar capabilities. I am a little less clear on the definition of cultivar than I am on some of the others.
Genetically Modified Organisms are seeds that are designed in a test tube with favorable characteristics. These seeds often grow into plants that are unable to reproduce (that way the gardener or farmer has to go buy more seed next season). If these plants are able to reproduce it may even be more damaging because they are a sort of ‘super plant’ that is not susceptible to the diseases and pests that generally surround it. So when the plants begin to reproduce and spread, they don’t have the natural predators that nature designed for it. This destroys the diversity that keeps plants improving and evolving. While the ‘super plants’ don’t really evolve or improve, their predators will and eventually there will be a single pest or disease that while wipe out the crop. I am personally of the opinion that we are better off not messing with nature than we are trying to stay a step ahead of something extremely powerful and unpredictable.
So what are we going to grow in our garden? I think we will start with a lot of hybrids and do some experimentation. We may also try some heirlooms, but I think that it will take some research on the heirlooms because they were used for generations in the same area and that doesn’t mean they will work where I am. I have also found that consumers expect the uniformity and disease resistance that comes with hybrids. I think that is unfortunate because the heirlooms really have the potential to taste better and be better for the environment, but general consumers can’t get over the bug bites, worm holes and crazy shapes and sizes. One of my goals on a farm will be to always grow an heirloom variety to try and introduce to consumers as a different, less predictable, but tastier option to what they are used to.
Now I need to get a farm so I can do those things.