The difference between the heirlooms and open-pollinated varieties of veggies is not very big, but when it comes to hybrids there is a major difference between the first two. Being a staunch advocate for seed saving I prefer to work with heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, but do personally grow a few hybrids that we really like.
Open-pollinated vegetables pollinate themselves one of two ways, they either cross pollinate with other varieties surrounding them or self pollinate. The result of fruit of this seed can be very diverse if it cross-pollinates with different varieties but the same traits can be preserved if a gardener pollinates the flowers or segregates the plants from different varieties. The seeds of open-pollinated varieties can be saved for future years use and the traits that were favored of the parent will be transferred to the seed of future generations!
Heirloom vegetables are the same as Open-Pollinated vegetables, the only difference being that there is a 'story' behind the certain variety. It is usually a variety that has been handed down from generation to generation in a family, or a person found the variety somewhere and saved the seed. An example of this is the 'Cave Bean'. The seed of this 1500 year old bean was found in a sealed clay pot in a cave in New Mexico. It is thought to have been left there by the Anasazi Indians. Amazingly the seed germinated and we can now grow this seed in our gardens! There is a thought that to be called an heirloom, the variety should be saved or have a 'story' of over 50 years.
A hybrid (F1) variety is the result of crossing two different varieties together. The seed of these fruits will not come true to type. That is to say, if the seed of these fruits are planted and grown out, there will be a great diverse difference in the plants and fruit. This is where the seed companies make their money. If consumers can't save and regrow their hybrid seed, then we have to go back to the seed company year after year for the specific variety and have to rely on the company to re-offer the seed. Many years the companies will decide that they want to introduce a new hybrid and will drop the 'old' hybrid, then we're stuck with what we don't know or like.
As I said earlier, we are staunch supporters and growers of heirlooms and open-pollinated varieties of vegetables. In fact, we specialize in finding and offering the plants of some of the rarest of varieties to our customers at local farmers markets. But we do also understand that hybrids have a place in our gardens. We do grow a few varieties of hybrids because of the vigor, flavor and production....one of them being the Sungold tomato. But the 5 varieties of hybrids don't even come close to the 300+ different varieties of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, lettuce, herbs, etc, etc that we do grow. Each of them with their own special traits that are worth saving year after year...and we don't even have to rely on a seed company to provide the seed, we can save them ourselves! More on seed saving will be written in a future post.
I would like to ask, do you have a favorite open-pollinated variety? Or do you save the seed of an heirloom that has been passed down through your family? I'd love to hear about it!
If you would like further reading on this subject a few good articles can be found here and here.