Open-pollinated seeds

By Lili Michaud

Lili Michaud is a French-Canadian urban agronomist, garden coach and author of six books. Recognized for her professionalism, objectivity and communication skills, Lili Michaud has solid expertise in urban ecological practices and growing edible plants.

When it comes to choosing vegetable seeds, any good organic gardener should ask themself the following question: Are these open-pollinated varieties or F1 hybrid varieties? But before you can answer that question, you really have to be able to tell the difference.

Open-Pollinated Varieties

Open-pollinated seed packets.

An open-pollinated (OP) variety is a variety whose pollination has taken place without human intervention … or little human intervention. However, it may have been pollinated naturally by the wind or insects. It’s a variety with fixed characteristics. So, under ideal conditions, seeds grown from an open-pollinated variety will produce plants that are true to type: essentially identical to the mother plant. Open-pollinated varieties include heirloom varieties and fixed hybrid varieties.

Heirloom varieties, also known as heritage varieties, existed before the era of modern agriculture, that is, before 1940.

‘Brandywine’ tomatoes and ‘Green Finger’ Lebanese cucumber are heirloom open-pollinated varieties.

Blue tomato ‘Indigo Rose’
‘Indigo Rose’ tomato. Photo: seedsnsuch.com

Fixed hybrid varieties are of more recent origin… too recent to be considered heirloom vegetables. They are the result of long selection preceded by natural or induced hybridization. One example would be the ‘Indigo Rose’ tomato: a modern tomato, but one that breeds true to type.

F1 Hybrid Variety

An F1 hybrid variety (or first-generation hybrid) is the result of an induced cross between two different varieties. During hybridization, the pollen of a fixed variety X is directly applied to the pistil of a fixed variety Y in order to obtain variety Z. It’s rather like a forced marriage!

F1 hybrid varieties are largely created industrially to meet marketing needs. Vegetables that come from these seeds have to be very homogeneous in color, size and maturity. Thus, they are well suited for intensive cultivation, harvesting, storage (think of tomatoes with extra thick skins) and transport (identical vegetables pack better for shipping). Unfortunately, flavor (a characteristic so important to both gardeners and gourmets) is not always the strong point of F1 varieties!

An F1 hybrid variety has not been fixed. That means that its genetic characteristics are unstable. Thus, it’s not wise to harvest and resow seeds from F1 hybrid varieties, as the result will be unreliable due to different possible combinations of the parents’ traits. Also, the supply of F1 hybrid seed varieties is limited and their cost is sometimes prohibitive. In catalogs or on the websites of seed companies, F1 hybrid seeds are usually identified by the symbol “F1”.

For example, ‘Celebrity’ tomatoes and ‘Sweet Success’ cucumbers are F1 hybrid varieties. In addition, the majority of vegetables in the supermarket are grown from F1 hybrid seeds.

Good Reasons for Choosing Open-Pollinated Varieties

Organic seeds

Growing your vegetables from open-pollinated seeds is an ecological, economic and social gesture… and fascinating as well.

By growing open-pollinated varieties, you:

  • Will have access to great diversity. Did you know that there are over 15,000 varieties of tomatoes, the majority of which are open-pollinated varieties? In fact, there is almost no limit to the variety available;
  • Will be able to grow ancestral varieties renowned for their remarkable flavor;
  • Encourage local family-owned seed producers who are committed to preserving varieties that otherwise risk being lost forever;
  • Grow varieties that are better suited to your climatic conditions and thus have a better chance of success;
  • Will have the opportunity to harvest your seeds from your plants and resow them as long as you take certain precautions (some will need to be grown in isolation).

Where to Find Seeds of Open-Pollinated Varieties?

Organic seeds

One very interesting element of open-pollinated seeds is that they tend to be mostly marketed by small, family-owned businesses, often local ones. And there are many good reasons to encourage these regional ma-and-pa seed companies. On one hand, they help preserve ancestral varieties. Also, they encourage and introduce modern open-pollinated varieties with characteristics that gardeners want, including flavor and disease resistance. Also, they tend to offer varieties that have proven themselves especially well adapted to local growing conditions. Finally, most adopt production practices that respect the environment and thus offer organic or organically grown seeds. This is a much smarter choice than buying F1 hybrid seeds grown with the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and marketed by multinational companies.

With readers of this blog coming from all over the world, it would be impossible to list local seed companies dealing in open-pollinated seeds for everyone in this article. Instead, try entering “open-pollinated vegetable seeds” in an Internet search engine like Google and pick a supplier near to where you live, especially if you garden under fairly harsh conditions, since locally adapted varieties can make a huge difference in the results you obtain.

Have a good growing season!

Unless otherwise mentioned, photos by Lili Michaud.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

6 comments on “Why Choose Open-Pollinated Seeds?

  1. I try to grow non F1 hybrids but for some like leeks and Brussels sprouts it’s really hard not to. I’d say I’m 90% successful especially using the real seed company and heritage seed library. The one F1 I do make space for is Sungold tomato….but I’m on an F3 generation of some seeds so fingers crossed, only 4 more years to go!

  2. Man has been hybrid seed in the 1800, so how can anyone claim that open-pollinated & Heirloom are not hybrids.

    Note: Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding.

  3. They are hybrids, obviously

  4. Although I do not intentionally limit selection to open pollinated seed, it works out that way because so many of the old varieties that I remember happen to be open pollinated varieties. Some were what my ancestors grew, not because of intentional limitations, but because they could easily collect seed for the following season. Hybrids were trendy for a while decades ago, but just did not last long in their gardening style. Such seed were expensive, if they were available at all. Hardware stores provided only a few varieties for those who wanted to try something besides what they collected from their own gardens, or got from neighbors.

  5. Vielen Dank für das Teilen eines so hilfreichen Blogs.

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