Gardening 101: GMOs, Hybrids, and Heirlooms


A quick jaunt through the internet, making sure to skip through a few gardening blogs and communities, and you’ll quickly find two things:

1) GMOs are of tremendous concern to America’s gardeners.

And 2) GMOs are incredibly misunderstood among America’s gardeners.

This, of course, is true of so many of America’s demographics. Our consumers, cooks, mothers, fathers… our eaters are all both concerned and confused.

Today, in continuing with the garden planning theme we began last week however, I’d like to address that confusion specifically from a gardening perspective. And I think there’s probably no better place to begin that than with what, exactly, GMOs, Hybrids, and Heirlooms really are.


What is a GMO?

A Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is an organism — in the case of this discussion a plant, or the seed stock for a plant — whose genetic makeup has been manipulated in a laboratory using genetic modification technology. Though GMOs can be created from two or more sexually compatible species or varieties — that is, two or more species or varieties that could mate naturally — most of the technology now in use focuses on isolating genes from a donor species and implanting them in a host with which that donor is sexually incompatible. In other words, while a genetically modified organism could be produced by say, inserting genes from a Poodle into a Labrador Retriever, most of the technology now in use focuses on techniques more akin to inserting genes from a poodle into a cat. Poodles and Labrador Retrievers are sexually compatible, Poodles and cats are not.

Contrary to what certain shock jocks and marketing departments would have you believe, GMOs are only on the market in a select handful of plant species — namely corn, soy, canola, cotton, alfalfa, papaya, and zucchini — few of which are grown in backyard gardens at all. And even then, GMO seeds are only sold in mass quantities such as those routinely purchased by professional farmers, certainly not in the packet or pound packages generally used by hobby or even small-scale market gardeners.

What Is a Hybrid?

A hybrid is the offspring of two sexually compatible species or varieties. In the case of seeds, it is the cross of two different varieties of the same type of vegetable, the cross between two types of tomatoes or two types of squashes, for instance. Think: the cross between a Poodle and Labrador Retriever, Labradoodles!

Hybrids are not patented and can and do occur naturally on a regular basis. Plant two types of green beans or squashes closely together in your garden, for instance, and if you save your seeds you’re likely to be growing a hybrid the next year due to natural cross-pollination. In the case of hybrid garden seed and plants, cross pollination is controlled in green houses and on farms where the plants are purposefully cross pollinated by hand. This process is as old as the act of cultivating plants for food itself, and is done to produce plants who demonstrate the best traits of both their parent varieties. Both hybrid plants and animals are usually more vigorous than their purebred counterparts, oft times making for better health and increased production.

What is an Heirloom?

Heirloom is a marketing term, and a moderately misleading one at that. While the word heirloom conjures up images of a long and rich history of cultivation, “heirloom” vegetables are simply those that are open-pollinated and genetically stable. They can be very old varieties, those that have been grown for many generations, or relatively recent creations that have been bred (through the same processes used to make hybrids) and stabilized.

Heirlooms breed true, which means as long as you prevent them from cross pollinating in your own garden you can save seed year after year and each successive crop will exhibit the same traits as those that came before it. Like hybrids, heirloom vegetable seeds and plants are sold in both small and large quantities.

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