Choosing the best plants for your little piece of earth

Story and Photos by Kristi Cook

Gardening is a fairly simple affair. Provide the right location, the proper amendments, and adequate water and you’ll likely enjoy a good harvest. However, with a bit more planning, you can increase your garden’s success by selecting the best plant varieties for your particular spot and your specific goals. Unfortunately, deciphering the various labels can be a little frustrating. After all, what is the difference between open-pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid? And exactly what is GMO? The answers provide insight into how each one will perform in and affect your garden.

Open-pollinated (OP) and heirloom labels are perhaps the easiest to interpret. Simply put, both terms indicate that a specific variety was produced via the natural process of open-pollination using insects, wind, animals, or even self-pollination between two parent plants of the same variety. Seeds from these plants will then produce true-to-type with only minor variances. Each successive generation will continue to produce the same results, provided pollination continues to occur only between plants of the same variety. And much to the gardener’s benefit, seeds saved and replanted over the course of several seasons often produce offspring with increased resistance to local pests and disease as well as an increased tolerance to local weather extremes. The only significant difference between heirloom and OP varieties is that heirlooms boast the added prestige of a history of being passed down to future generations through the decades.

Interpreting the various labels is a helpful tool when creating a garden that fulfills your unique gardening plans.

Superior flavor, local adaptability, and the ability to save seeds from one season to the next are the primary reasons many choose open-pollinated varieties over others, regardless of an OP variety’s history. However, yields are often lower, fruits are not uniform, and disease resistance may – or may not – be a bit lower than hybrid counterparts. 

Hybrid, on the other hand, indicates that a specific variety was created through a breeder’s intentional cross-pollination of two distinctly different varieties within the same species. The intent is to create a cross between the two parents with the offspring expressing specific traits from each parent, such as disease resistance, high yields, firm fruit, and uniform appearance. Many claim this hybridization is at the cost of old-fashioned flavor, while others tend to prefer the typically milder flavor common in hybrids. Seeds from hybrids, however, will not reproduce true-to-type, resulting in the need to purchase new seed each season.  

Whether starting plants from seed or purchasing transplants, it’s helpful to understand what terms such as hybrid, heirloom, and open-pollinated mean for you and your garden.

GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) are the least common labels a gardener will encounter. However, that is changing with each passing season. In a nutshell, GMO varieties are produced by splicing segments of one organism’s DNA into the DNA of another organism via genetic engineering. This cannot be accomplished in nature and often DNA from two different species is combined, such as corn DNA with DNA from bacteria. The goal of this process is to create a variety that is better able to withstand disease, pests, or herbicides. It is not without controversy, however. Many seed companies refuse to offer GMO seed, while others offer it freely. So if this is a concern, check with your chosen supplier before making a purchase. 

Interpreting the various labels is a helpful tool when creating a garden that fulfills your unique gardening plans. You may find you enjoy incorporating a “little of this” and a “little of that” or that you prefer one type to the other. Whichever you prefer, remember to experiment and enjoy the journey.

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