Editor’s note: Get Growing, written by the La Plata County Extension Office’s Master Gardener Program, appears during the growing season. It features timely tips and suggestions for your garden and landscape.By Jill Hoehlein and Robin Walsh
Heirloom vegetables are old-time varieties, open-pollinated instead of hybrid, and saved and handed down through multiple generations of families. These may have been commonly grown during earlier periods in human history but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture.
Many heirloom vegetables have kept their traits through open pollination, while fruit varieties such as apples have been propagated over the centuries through grafts and cuttings. In recent decades, the popularity of growing heirlooms has resurfaced in North America and other parts of the world.
Typically, heirlooms have adapted over time to the climate and soil they have been grown in. Because of their genetics, they are often resistant to local pests, diseases and extremes of weather. Heirloom fruits have flavor and nutritional benefits, and a longer picking season.
Hybrid produce is created when plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two different varieties of a plant, aiming to produce an offspring (hybrid) that contains the best traits of each of the parents. Cross-pollination is a natural process that occurs within members of the same plant species.
In general, hybrids offer some combination of these favorable traits: dependability, less required care, early maturity, better yield, improved flavor, specific plant size and/or disease resistance. Hybrid vegetables typically look like the veggies you’d find at a supermarket.
Neither hybrids nor heirlooms are intrinsically bad or good. Each could have a place in your garden. Many gardeners agree that most heirloom varieties boast greater flavor than that found in hybrids, especially among tomatoes. Hybrid plants typically yield a crop that is uniform in appearance and timing. Heirloom harvest, on the other hand, may come in less predictably, and fruit size can vary greatly even on the same plant.
Try growing both hybrid and heirloom vegetables (especially tomatoes!). Doing so will ensure a reliable, flavorful harvest that offers a lot of variety and, truly, the best of both worlds.
Whichever way you go in your garden this year, plan to enter your produce or flowers in the horticulture classes at the La Plata County Fair this August. There will be special recognition for heirloom varieties.
Jill Hoehlein and Robin Walsh are current volunteers with the Colorado Master Gardener Program.