By Ellen Barcel
Sometimes when we buy seeds or plants there will be terms listed on the label or packaging that tell us that plants are raised in a certain way or have certain characteristics. Many gardeners will seek out special types of plants, such as heirloom or hybrid. What do these terms mean and how can the gardener use them to his or her best advantage?
Each autumn when I was a kid, my father used to select the best tomatoes he had grown the past summer and save the seeds. He’d remove them from the tomato and dry them on a paper towel. Come spring, he’d plant the seeds to get the new generation of tomatoes. He didn’t use the term then, but they were what was known as heirloom plants. Heirloom plants are ones grown from seed openly pollinated and produced by the parent plant. In general, heirloom plants breed true to the parent. We generally think of heirloom plants in terms of tomatoes, but the term refers to any older varieties of plants, generally passed down through the generations.
Hybrids are crosses between two different varieties of a plant in an attempt to get the best qualities of both. Seeds from hybrid plants do not breed true, so saving them for future generations is not really an option. Gardeners therefore must buy the hybrid seeds (or plants grown from them by plant breeders) each year.
Sports are unexpected mutations of a plant. Saving the seeds from sports is iffy at best. The seeds might not be viable, could produce the new characteristics or could produce the original plant. Generally, if a sport has desirable qualities, like an apple tree with a branch that produces larger, sweeter apples, the plant is reproduced vegetatively by cuttings since cuttings will breed true.
GMOs are genetically modified organisms. A scientist in a laboratory has taken genes from one organism and added it to another. The foreign genes could come from any type of organism, other plants or even animals. Supporters of GMOs say that the resulting product is safe and has superior qualities, such as it may be more disease resistant, have a longer shelf life or the plant may produce a heavier crop. Opponents are concerned about unexpected consequences — is the product safe? What are the long-term results? You may see products in the supermarket marked non-GMO because of these concerns. Legislation passed last summer in the U.S. will require foods with GMOs to be labeled. Some foods that have been genetically modified include soybeans, corn and tomatoes.
Organic gardening refers to any plant — heirloom, hybrid, sport or GMO — raised without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic gardeners use compost or other nonchemical fertilizers like compost tea, bone meal, holly tone, etc. To avoid pesticides, organic gardeners will sometimes hand pick pests like slugs, encourage birds to nest in the garden (to eat insects) and use companion planting, for example, surround tulips with daffodils, to keep the squirrels away. For farms to be certified organic, chemical pesticides and fertilizers cannot be used on the land for a number of years before the beginning of organic gardening.
Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.