Pied Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Seeds: Heirloom or Hybrid?

Hi, my name's Elizabeth and I'm a compulsive reader of seed catalogs.  I thought I had it under control until I went to Chicago for the IGC Show and not only collected more catalogs, but also material about whole seed displays!  And to make matters more difficult, I find I'm in deep spiritual conflict about seeds.

Just the beginning...

On the one hand, I love the whole narrative behind the heirloom seeds movement.  I love the retro packaging.  I love the outlandish names of the old varieties.  I never want these old varieties to become extinct.  I think open-pollinated is the way to go, and I'm very suspicious of rules that prohibit propagation from collected seeds.  The very essence of heirloom seeds is something that resonates with me emotionally, and in a big way.  Plus, I also have a sense of nostalgia about the taste of heirloom vegetables, although this is probably all in my head. 

Beauty Queen Tomato, courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

On the other hand (and there's always another hand, isn't there?)...

Plant breeders have done so much wonderful work to improve disease and insect resistance, quality, germination rates and productivity.  The new varieties of vegetables are often far easier to grow than the heirlooms, especially if you're trying to minimize the use of chemicals in the garden.  Smaller, more compact hybrids are a better fit than heirlooms for smaller, more compact gardens.  Heat tolerance is a biggie where I live too -- Southeast Texas isn't exactly the birthplace of North American agriculture and heirloom varieties are often unable to withstand our climate.  There's a reason why plant breeders try so hard to improve on original varieties, after all. 

BHN-444, resistant to spotted wilt virus
(Photo: Johnny's Selected Seeds)

I think it's a tricky issue for a retailer, too.  It's easy to sell the heirloom mystique, especially when the seed packets are so nicely done.  But my sense is that gardeners will be more successful with improved varieties (of most vegetables).  Many retailers have space and inventory dollars for only one line of seeds.  Which would you recommend?


  1. I, too, love the idea of heirloom plants and seeds. I favor the heirlooms because it just seems more "natural" to me. I am very, very, wary of anything tied to Monsanto and their evil, destructive ways.

  2. Great post! You have started the conflict perfectly. I love the heirlooms, but i will gladly plant others as well. I can plant modern varieties and use organic methods to grow them. Man has been manipulating and hybridizing plants for eons, and we have gorgeous, improved varieties because of it.

  3. Oops! That word is supposed to be"stated". You are certainly not the one who started the conflict!

  4. Hi Jennifer! Thanks for your comment. Stay tuned for a future blog about ancient hybridization practices (long before Monsanto!) :)

    Hi Deb! Thanks for your comment. I always love to hear from you!

  5. Great post. Just this morning I was taking a picture of the Mountain Sweet Yellow watermelon I grow....Yellow flesh, black seeds, and sweet as candy. I've got a few seeds drying for next year if anyone's interested.

    ProfessorRoush (http://kansasgardenmusings.blogspot.com)