Published in the Toronto Star – February 4, 2017
It is mid-winter: perfect time to review your garden seed catalogues.
For many of us, it is important to grow the very best quality plants in our garden. Why go to the trouble of ‘growing your own’ otherwise? Where vegetable gardening is concerned, many of us produce tomatoes, peppers and the like in our yard or on the balcony in containers as the exercise gives us control over the process. If this was not of interest to us we might just as well buy produce in season from a farmers market or the local food store. As my wife reminds me, “Why grow potatoes when I can buy them for five cents a pound?” She makes a good point on that one.
We grow our own food for better flavour (think of the vine ripened tomato) and sweetness (carrots, wiped on my pant leg and crunched on in the garden!) and it is fun. Kids enjoy the experience too.
What is a hybrid?
And what is a hybrid? A hybrid is the result of crossing two closely related species in a controlled environment. This is the sort of thing that is done by the professionals, like those at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre here in Ontario, every day. It can be done in your backyard too, with a little education and time.
Many hybrids that make it to market are more disease resistant than their parents, bloom longer, produce tougher fruit (great for shipping long distances, not so great for flavour) and generally provide a quality or two that can make the plant or its fruit appealing to buyers. Some hybrids I really like for my garden and others I steer wide of. I especially avoid the hybrids that were not created with the home gardener in mind.
Many of my favourite plants are hybrids. Sweet One Million cherry tomato – the most prolific producer and by far the sweetest in its’ category – is an example of this. My favourite rose, Bonica, is another hybrid.
Sometimes you will see ‘F1’ after the name of a plant variety. This means that it is a hybrid created by crossing two pure parents. It takes growers many years to achieve a pure line before they can continue with their goal to produce an F1 hybrid. In theory these varieties have outstanding characteristics. In reality they are expensive to produce and cost more.
There are some strange things that happen out in the garden. A cucumber can cross with its close cousin, the pumpkin, and create a cuckin. The melon family are famous for family in-breeding. The reason is that they are open-pollinated. A bee or a hummingbird visits a flower on one plant, gathers its pollen or nectar and moves on to another, much like we graze through the fridge for snacks. Neither one of us gives any thought to the different food groups that we are visiting, if our palette and tummies are satisfied.
This sort of mixing up of species within a family is harmless enough.
Plants will produce unpredictable changes as they evolve from one generation to another. It has been reported that Purina was growing a large field of sweet potatoes for use in their dog food product when one of the plants produced brilliant lime-green leaves. While it was not of much use to Purina, a smart-thinking plant breeder isolated the plant, produced seeds from it that were true to their parent and created a whole new ornamental plant category: the ‘sweet potato vine’ that graces many containers each spring and summer.
The new sweet potato was a natural mutation. Mother Nature was experimenting and somebody identified some value in her work.
This helps to explain why, in a packet of red flowering zinnia seeds, you can find the odd bi-coloured or off-white flowering plant. Consider it a bonus, courtesy of Mother Nature.
Heritage Varieties. Are those that have been around for 100 years or more. Purists go out of their way for these. I like some of them for their flavour [as many hybrids that have been created to meet the demands of the commercial industry are tough and flavourless]. However, I find many of them more susceptible to disease. If you grow heritage varieties be sure to keep a keen eye out for powdery mildew and the like. Give your heritage plants lots of space in the sunniest positions in your garden, to increase air flow and help to burn off disease spores in hot, dry weather.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a broad term that refers to any living thing that has had its DNA modified. Plant researchers take two plants and splice the genes of one with the genes of the other. The genes of bacteria and corn were married in a laboratory to produce a disease resistant strain of corn (BT corn). A similar process was used to produce ‘Round up ready’ soy beans.
In many jurisdictions around the world, there are policies requiring the labeling of genetically modified organisms. Whether you are a legislator or a consumer of garden seeds, it is important to know that, in this case, the language that we use matters.