Old and the new in the garden

Gardeners face decision between heirloom and hybrid varieties of plants; add genetically modified organism to your vocabulary, too

Gardening used to be easier, or at least simpler, in "the old days." You grew your veggies or flowers, saved the seeds of the best ones, and planted them the next year.

Now, however, we deal with terms such as open pollinated, hybrid, heirloom and, most recently, grafted vegetables and GMOs. What do these mean, and why do we need to know?

We need to know so that we can grow the kind of plants we prefer.

Heirloom varieties have flavors and textures seldom found in today's modern vegetables, fruits and flowers. A good example of this is tomatoes. Perhaps you can remember when a ripe tomato was juicy and so fragrant you could smell it even before you cut it. Marigolds were so "fragrant" that they truly helped keep the bad bugs away.

Why isn't this true anymore? Because most of the food we eat is grown commercially, and flavor is not the most important thing to those growers. It's appearance and shipability. In order to ship well, produce must be durable and firm. In order to sell well in the supermarket, it must look pretty. (Think glossy red, tasteless strawberries that are white inside). Therefore, plant breeders spend most of their energy developing those traits, because commercial growers are their biggest customers.

Heirloom varieties have been passed down through the generations, but now are mostly found in backyard gardens, although some organic food producers grow them, too. By the way, remember that organic does not mean heirloom. Heirloom refers to the seed source, and organic to how it was grown. Another item of interest might be that in 1981, seed catalogs offered 5,000 heirloom seed choices; today there are about 500.

Heirloom varieties are open pollinated — that is, by bees or other insects. Hybrids, on the other hand, use a forced, or deliberately planned, pollination, generally in an artificial way, instead of by insects. This is not all bad, of course, as many undesirable traits have been eliminated by hybridization.

Maybe you can remember when cucumbers were so prickly you practically needed gloves to pick them, for example. Hybridizing has eliminated that characteristic. Susceptibility to several diseases has been "bred out" of many plants, as well as allowed the development of small plants suitable for growing in containers.

The main drawback to hybrids is that you cannot save the seeds and get a similar plant the next year, as it will revert to the original, undesirable traits of its ancestors. Thus, you must buy new seeds each year.

Hybridization has been common since the 1920s, when it was developed for seed corn. But now we are hearing about genetic modification, or GMOs, in which plant breeders have learned to splice genes from unrelated organisms — bacteria, for example — into the chromosomes of plants. We do not yet know the consequences of GMOs, especially for long-term use in food plants.

Another new development is grafted plants. This has long been done with fruit trees, which allows one tree to produce several varieties of apples. Now it is being done with vegetables, mainly tomatoes and peppers. This seems especially helpful in areas of the country that have problems with root nematodes, as a nematode-resistant rootstock can be grafted to varieties that are not as resistant to them.

What is a gardener to do? How do you know what you are buying? Remember that if the seed packet or plant has an "OP" designation, it is open pollinated. "F1" means it is a hybrid. Heirlooms are usually listed as such, as are grafted plants.

At this point, GMOs are not available to home gardeners, either as seed or seedlings.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.


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