If you are a gardener, then most likely you have used hybrid seeds in your garden at some point. If you’re like me, you have also wondered what hybrid seeds are, and why they are so common.
So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of hybrid seeds? Some advantages of using hybrid seeds: they are easier and faster to grow, they adapt better to stress, and they are often bred to produce larger fruit, give higher yields, resist disease, and ship better than heirloom seeds. Some disadvantages of using hybrid seeds: they are more expensive, less nutritious, and less tasty than heirloom seeds, and saving hybrid seeds is usually not practical.
Hybrid seeds have their place in gardening, but whether you choose to use them or not will depend on your preferences. Let’s take a closer look at what hybrid seeds are, along with the advantages and disadvantages of using them.
What Are Hybrid Seeds?
According to Wikipedia, hybrid seeds come from cross-pollinated plants. This means that farmers and breeders specifically select two parent plants, a mother and a father plant.
For instance, if they want plants with larger fruit, then they can select both a mother and a father plant with larger fruit than other plants. Growers can also try to cross pollinate to breed for other desirable traits such as higher yield per plant, resistance to certain diseases, and ability to store or ship well.
Once the parent plants are selected, the growers ensure that only the pollen from the chosen father plant is used to fertilize the female flower of the mother plant. That way, the growers have a better chance of producing seeds that will grow into plants with the desired characteristics.
Note that I said chance – it is not guaranteed that the offspring seeds will always have the desired characteristics. Before creating the desired seeds, growers may need to throw out lots of failed experimental crossings that had undesirable characteristics. Just like clinical research to develop pharmaceuticals, success is not always guaranteed.
For more information, check out this article from Wikipedia on hybrid seeds.
Advantages Of Hybrid Seeds
There are numerous advantages to hybrid seeds, the first of which is their predictability. Let’s start there.
Hybrid Seeds Grow Alike
Since all hybrid seeds in a packet have the same parent plants, they all have the same genes. This means that they will all grow into similar (some would say uniform) plants.
This means that you don’t need to worry about undesirable characteristics, such as small or nonexistent fruit on any of your plants grown from hybrid seed.
This also allows seed companies to describe the characteristics of plants with a good degree of certainty. For instance, catalogs can describe the height of plants and the size of the fruit in advance, since all of the hybrid seeds will grow approximately the same way.
Just remember that environmental conditions can still affect how seeds grow. If plants don’t get enough water, sunlight, or nutrients, they will not grow as large or produce as much as they could otherwise.
Hybrid Seeds Are Easier and Faster To Grow
For many reasons, hybrid seeds are often easier and faster to grow than heirloom seeds. For instance, many hybrid varieties have been bred for disease resistance.
This means that plants grown from hybrid seeds are less likely to fall victim to bacterial, viral, or fungal infections that slow their growth, reduce their yield, or kill them.
Hybrid seeds can also be bred to require less water, grow taller, and mature faster than heirloom plants. Seed companies can even tell you the germination rate of their seeds, often with very good accuracy.
Again, remember that germination rates do depend on proper cultural conditions. If you over water or under water your seeds, deprive them of sunlight, or leave them too hot or too cold, then they won’t germinate at the rates advertised in seed catalogs.
For more information, check out my article on over watering your seeds.
Hybrid Seeds Are Bred For More Vigor, Better Harvests, And The Ability To Ship Well
Hybrid seeds have been bred for vigor, meaning that some have resistance to disease, drought, or other environmental challenges. Often, hybrid seeds are also bred to produce larger fruit and bigger yields, which can provide the same amount of harvest with fewer plants.
This requires less work for farmers and gardeners, making it easier to sow seeds, care for plants, and harvest fruits and vegetables. It also means that less land is required to grow the same amount of food.
Finally, many fruits and vegetables have been bred to ship well, in order to satisfy consumers in distant markets with fresh produce. For instance, some of the produce grown in California ends up on the east coast of the United States, in cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
This means that all of us are able to experience fresh foods that we could not otherwise taste, thanks to hybrid seeds.
Disadvantages Of Hybrid Seeds
As with most things, hybrid seeds are not perfect – they do have their disadvantages. We certainly won’t hold that against them, but we will list the disadvantages here, just for informational purposes.
Hybrid Seeds Are More Expensive
Remember all the work that seed growers need to do in order to produce the hybrid seeds they want? This means that there is a lot of time spent on crossings that end up in the trash.
That is similar to the work pharmaceutical companies do to produce drugs that don’t work, or do not receive FDA approval. In both cases, the company needs to make up for the cost of failed experiments by charging more money for the successful ones.
As a result, when you pay for hybrid seeds, you are paying for both the successful and unsuccessful experiments. There is no way around this – after all, it’s called “research” for a reason.
Hybrid Seeds Are Less Nutritious and Less Tasty
When a hybrid seed is produced that has some desired characteristic, it often comes at the expense of another good trait. For instance, seeds that grow into plants with larger fruit may also have fruit that is less tasty.
Perhaps this is because the fruit contains more water, so the plant cannot produce fruit that tastes quite as good as the smaller ones. I have often found this to be the case with oranges – in my experience, the smaller oranges often have much more intense flavor than the large ones.
In addition to having more water, larger fruits may also have lower nutrient content. The reason is that the plant has been bred to produce larger fruit, without necessarily acquiring the ability to absorb more nutrients from the soil.
This means that the plant cannot provide enough nutrients to give the fruit the same nutritional value (pound for pound) as smaller fruit. The same problem could stem from increased yields: if a plant produces twice as much fruit, but takes up the same amount of nutrients, then every fruit may have half the nutrients of a normal one.
This may be an oversimplification, but you get the idea. Fruit from hybrid seeds may be less tasty and nutritious than fruit from heirloom seeds, since it is difficult to breed the “perfect” plant.
In fact, it is often impossible to breed a “perfect” plant (or any creature), since the nature of genetics is that we sacrifice one benefit in exchange for another. For example: cheetahs are fast, but imagine how slow they would be if they had to carry around the armor plating of a turtle. It’s the same way with breeding plants: you can’t have it all.
Hybrid Seeds Make It Difficult And Impractical To Save Seeds
This is possibly the biggest disadvantage to using hybrid seeds, which is why I saved this one for last. It is true that all of the hybrid seeds from a packet will grow into similar plants.
However, some of these plants will grow fruit that is seedless, meaning that there is no way to save the seeds and produce another generation. Instead, you will need to buy hybrid seeds again the next year in order to grow your garden. The seed companies have really got you there!
Let’s say that you plant hybrid seeds, and that the fruit does end up having seeds. Unfortunately, the next generation of plants grown from these new seeds is not guaranteed to be anything like the last one.
In fact, the next generation of plants may be less vigorous, less productive, or more susceptible to disease than the previous generation. Even worse, the next generation might not be able to produce fruit at all! In some cases, the seeds will not germinate, and you won’t get any plants at all.
The advantage of heirloom seeds over hybrid seeds is that heirloom seeds are fairly consistent from one generation to the next. When you save heirloom seeds, you are fairly certain that you will get plants similar to the parent plant in the next generation.
For more information, check out my article on heirloom seeds. You can also check out this article from Seed Savers Exchange on the difference between heirloom and hybrid seeds.
By now, you should have a much better understanding of what hybrid seeds are, and when you might want to use them. You also know that there are certain drawbacks to using hybrid seeds. Just remember that no seed is perfect, whether it is hybrid, heirloom, organic, or GMO.
I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone else who can use this information. If you have any questions or advice of your own about hybrid seeds, please leave a comment below.