The Politically Correct Tomato Sandwich

Last summer I became sandwiched between two political issues that appear sympathetic, but on close scrutiny show a profound and dissonant contradiction deep in the fertile soil of community gardening.

Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama boldly proclaimed that the urban poor were at serious risk of deprivation of fresh produce. The so called “food deserts” stretch from border to border in the poor and underprivileged sections of every major American city. One of the ways the First Lady proposed to solve this problem is to expand the size and number of community gardens.

However, there is also a trendy, stylish and even sexy movement in contemporary gardening that preaches the use of old fashioned or “heirloom” vegetables that were popular in our grandparents’ day. In community gardens everywhere, I see tall, rangy, low-yielding and romantically named heirloom varieties made popular by environmental activists over the last twenty years.

But there is trouble in this garden paradise. While the often lovely and uniquely flavored heirloom vegetables befit an upper middle class suburban vegetable plot, they fail to meet the urgent nutritional needs of the urban poor. In fact, old fashioned varieties, with their poor yields, late harvests and floppy plants, present logistical challenges that most community gardeners cannot meet. In contrast, modern hybrids— looked down on by today’s gardening elite—supply not only the requisite large quantity of vegetables that the poor need but also a nutritionally high quality of fruit, since they are loaded with greater amounts of vitamins and minerals than their distant ancestors.

Over the past several years, contemporary plant breeders have introduced nearly a dozen new cultivars of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and lettuce that record up to twice the amount of nutrients than ordinary store bought vegetables. While they don’t have the romantic or seductive names and stories behind them, such as “Mortgage Lifter” tomato, these new hybrids deliver vastly more antioxidants and vitamins C and D.

Further ironies abound. According to their zealous advocates, heirloom vegetables have the virtue of being able to be self-propagated, via do-it-yourself seed-saving techniques. The argument goes that self-perpetuating heirlooms provide low income families with an inexpensive means of sustaining themselves.

However, this virtue is not what it seems. Saving seeds can be just as tricky and time consuming as growing the vegetable garden itself. Seed must be collected, extracted, cleaned and put into dry storage. Paradoxically, the purveyors of heirloom seeds are at the elbow of community gardeners every year with new seeds to sell them.

Therefore, the poor and unemployed in the underprivileged communities of America are expected to spend more than twice the time and effort for less than half the benefits compared to hybrid seeds—especially the newest, nutrient rich varieties. But no one should underestimate the poor and unemployed—they know value when they harvest it. Give them more!

In addition, the swelling ranks of our nation’s unemployed include many potential gardeners. Recent news of the challenges facing food banks across the country suggests that community gardens are coming soon to many middle class neighborhoods. Perhaps we are not all out of work, or living in a food desert, but we should be mindful of those who are.

Although today’s hybrid vegetables, loaded with delicious fruit, are not today’s “flavor of the week” among gardening pundits, they address the food security needs of the urban poor more effectively than any hundred-year-old variety ever could.

As seen in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 27th, 2011 at 9:18 am and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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37 Responses to “The Politically Correct Tomato Sandwich”

  1. Mrs. Lenczyk said:

    This is a great article. It’s important to realize that heirlooms are much more labor intensive than most hybrids too- often needing additional (aka costly) plant supports- and often being vectors for disease later in the season as plants become brittle and break. Heirlooms often have an interesting historical past but what urban gardens need are productive and healthy hybrids to support hungry communities.

    • George said:

      Mrs. Lenczyk – Hooray for you! Right up there with the angels, Mrs. Lenczyk. Am I wrong? Thank you very much for adding so much substance to my article—and in so few words. Are you a professional writer? Please post again. I beg you.

  2. Mary said:

    I continue to grow the heirloom varieties because they taste better. The yields are good. the only disadvantage is the susceptibility to disease. i do agree that newer, more disease resisttant varieties should be grown in the community gardens, along with perhaps some of the better heirlom varieties such as Brandywine.

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Mary. Flavanoids develop from genes but also from the healthy growth of the plant. Both nature and nurture are key. I have tasted tomatoes bred for long distance shipping (Manalucie) grown to perfection in the home garden, and it was extremely delicious. Heat and light and a disease- and stress-free plant. Yet ‘Manalucie’ was bred exclusively for thousand-mile shipping. Exceptions to every rule, perhaps.

      I can always count on a great response from you. Please post again.

  3. Steve said:

    Two different trends.. they really shouldn’t have any connection. Urban gardens should maximize their productivity.. usually tomato plants are grown from 6-pack seedings, not from seeds. Six-packs are almost always popular modern varieties.

    Heirloom varieties can be worthwhile as a curiosity, but they really have no place in a seriously-growing-food garden. Saving seed is also a curiosity, but not really a cost-factor for most.

    • George said:

      Thanks very much, Steve. The only addition I might have made is that strange and unusual flavors could attract kids to eat vegetables. I think this may have been what First Lady Obama was trying to do, but she was not particularly emphatic about it. And that may be due to flavor and taste being so subjective. But, you nailed it, and I appreciate your comments.

      Thanks again and please post anytime.

  4. pam said:

    Too true!
    In many situations, well meaning folks parachute into other peoples’ communities with solutions-such as the heirloom vegetables in this case- without a realistic understanding of the actual needs or lives of those they seek to help.
    I agree that the hybrids are probably better in this case, but we need to parachute in with information, support and knowledge so that people can make their own choices… and I don’t mean just about tomatoes!!

    • George said:

      Thank you, Pam. “Bingo!” Please everyone give that intelligent lady a gigantic Kewpie doll. Please, please, please post again.

  5. Marguerite McGrath said:

    Must it be all or none? I think you will find most gardeners do what I do and that is plant some heirloom varieties and some hybrid varieties. Since I grow tomatoes for flavor first and yield second, I grow mostly heirloom varieties. One of my favorites, Brandywine, is a very low yielding but incredibly delicious variety, but another heirloom variety I grow, Rutgers, is disease resistant and a prolific yielder.

    Open pollinated seeds are often much less expensive than hybrids and many commercially available hybrids were selected for traits that are very useful for commercial growers, but not important to backyard growers, like tough skins that resist damage during extensive handling, or the tendency to ripen all at once and then stop yielding significantly after that.

    Some hybrids are very useful for disease or insect resistance or for improved yields, but some heirloom varieties also boast those traits. Locally sourced open pollinated seeds are more likely to be resistant to local insect or disease problems than hybrid seeds shipped in from a totally different climate.

    I have read studies that show that organically grown veggies are vastly superior nutritionally to conventionally grown produce. I have never seen a study that shows that hybrid varieties are more nutritious than open pollinated varieties. Can you provide a link to that research?

    • George said:

      Thanks much, Marguerite, for your thoughtful post. Where to begin? Of course you know I was writing about low-income community gardens, and addressing a general issue of cost/benefit or resource allocation. Folks need help and I am trying to give some.

      Most, if not all, community gardens in poor urban areas are funded partly or entirely by private and public charitable donations. The poor and unemployed don’t pay for the seed in the majority of cases. However, if they did, they’d see quickly that “commercial hybrids” are not “home garden hybrids”, even though the press tend to confuse these two entirely different categories. It would be as if automotive journalists confused a truck with a car. No-where did I discuss industrial or supermarket tomatoes. In fact, the new hybrids with much higher nutrients were specifically tested against other home garden varieties. We assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that no one who gardens vegetables would compare their fresh-picked harvest’s nutrient value with a bunch of supermarket tomatoes.

      Also, you sweep all “commercial hybrids” under the determinate category. We sell a small selection of determinate varieties only for container growing. This is the only context in which they make sense as home garden varieties, and even they are specially bred for the actual containers, not giant mechanical harvesters, as you suggested.

      And I propose that one doesn’t measure productivity on the basis of cost but of cost and benefit netted out. Just more precise that way. People in our industry do this all the time. They look at the packet price and fail to read the features and benefits of the variety of the seeds inside. Many “expensive” hybrids are, in fact, very “cheap”.

      You are somewhat correct that “some heirloom varieties” are disease and insect resistant. One or two out of hundreds is our experience. And higher yields than heirlooms? I know of no such thing. What is your source? I have heard of O.P.S. in Africa being as high-yielding as ordinary commercial hybrids (mostly old French or Dutch dumped seed of varieties not hybridized for the tropics). This may be what you have heard. However, once hybridization programs in those remote areas get underway, and local breeders get trained, “heirlooms”—as correctly defined—will perhaps be surpassed by the new hybrids. Again, I was trying to address community gardens in the U.S.

      Finally, you ask for a study showing hybrids being more nutritious. I’ll send it to you. It is part of our PR program. I trust you will send me links of your afore-mentioned studies as well.

      Last but not least, I keep hearing “Rutgers” called an heirloom. It may be an old open-pollinated variety, but it is not an heirloom. It is an old industrial tomato. The zealots I referenced in my article, some with influence in the press, have described this and many other commercial and industrial O.P.S. from the old days as “heirlooms” to bolster their marketing strength. Non-profits in some cases. “Flags all over the field.” Sad. So much misinformation, so much time.

      Thanks very much again for a thoughtful and interesting post.

  6. Zshawn said:

    funny I never saw taste mentioned! Heirlooms have 10 times the flavor and I bet I get as much yield from my heirlooms as anyone gets from their hybrids. It is ALL about the soil and replenishment of it.

    • George said:

      Thanks much, Zshawn. Good point ! Perhaps a delicious home grown vegetable with a unique heirloom taste would inspire kids to eat more vegetables. I did mention taste in paragraph 4, 2nd sentence. However, I didn’t emphasize it for a couple of reasons. First, taste is somewhat personal: some folks like it sweet, others mild, others somewhere in between. I’ve seen folks salt a home-grown tomato, others sprinkle sugar over them. Not.. Not only that, I’ve seen these responses to the same variety of tomato ! Second, the compounds that give vegetables flavor are found in abundance in healthy plants, which in all our research over 20 years, hybrids produce more than heirlooms. However, some heirlooms indeed possess genetic attributes that confer unique or unusual flavors, such as ‘Black Krim’. But my concern in my article was that community gardens in poor areas need all the help they can get. Hybrids do much better overall, and with the new ones that possess higher nutrients, deliver better health to at-risk children and adults. Nevertheless, you make an excellent point about the need for healthy soil. Thanks again.

  7. I am curious about all we are hearing about GMO,non GMO. Yes we are avid gardeners,and share your thoughts on New varities of vegetables,as opposed to Heirloom.
    We like to grow a lot of paste tomatoes for our sauces,and canned marinaras.I find the productivity of some of the newer ones far surpass the old varieties also.We grow a few heirlooms,like San Marazano,and battle them for their fruits!! :) Leslie,and Steve

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Leslie and Steve. First, we sell no GMO varieties. Second, I hope you have given ‘Big Mama’ and the several other mamas a shot. Skin just falls by itself! Hardly any seed or none at all! Very little coring! You stand there in the kitchen and your eyes begin to mist with joy. ‘Health Kick’ too is an extremely good paste tomato.

      Thanks again and please post again at anytime.

  8. Maxine said:

    Green is not the panacea of all the world’s problems. Either/or is poor logic and even worse resource management. Thanks for a thoughtful essay.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Maxine, for your pithy and thought-provoking remarks. The glass is both half-full and half empty, as they say.

  9. Mary Youngkin said:

    I’m relieved that I’m not alone. As a 30+ year organic community gardener with passionate beliefs about diversity in planting, I feel horribly guilty about saying that heirloom tomatoes don’t float my boat. With the exception of some paste varieties, the yield of most is absolutely pathetic and my palate does not discern better taste. I particularly dislike the large crinkly ones which rot before they ripen and topple their cages onto their neighbors.
    This year’s planting was a spectacular disaster.
    I will continue to include heirlooms in my garden for experimentation and feel-good sake, but for food,I’ll plant hybrids.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Mary. I have also had some luck with the older paste heirlooms, but not as much as with ‘Big Mama’ and its ilk. Try ‘Brandy Boy’ as a substitute for ‘Brandywine’. We find it better. My hat is still off to ‘Black Krim’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’. They remind me of classic Burpee O.P.S. from the 1890s.

      Nevertheless, regardless nice varieties, but not easy for community gardens. I am glad you understand my post, and appreciate your feedback.

  10. sherry said:

    I am very interested in hearing from other growers not just George Ball/ Burbee. This is a confusing topic-are we better off or not?
    Our food and it’s resources are under constant change as to what is good for us or not. It is all well and good to proclaim something is better than the other but in my garden I want to grow and produce what is the best for my family’s health. We grow food to get away from grocers commercial produce. At least if we are able to have a small pot or plot or community garden, can we at least find out what is the best seed to use?

    • George said:

      Thanks, Sherry. Not too sure what you are confused about. Perhaps you refer to statements, claims or lab results that seem to contradict each other over several years: coffee, alcohol, eggs, South Beach-type diets, etc. This was not my topic. Also, vegetables and fruits are always better for you and your family. They contain nutrients, water and fiber in abundance. Home-grown vegetables are presumably picked at peak ripeness rather than picked green or milky (half-ripe), shipped hundreds if not thousands of miles, gassed with ethylene to color up the outer skins and then shipped to the produce section of your supermarket or grocer. I was referring to the genetics of new hybrid garden varieties versus old—and ironically in many cases, commercial—so-called heirloom varieties. They are in some cases as obsolete as 100-year old medicines. Again, most yield their harvests late, produce low numbers of fruit and, due to less vigor, suffer from stress and diseases. In general, these stresses reduce the sugars and acids that create flavor. (We sell special range of only the most worthy or valuable heirlooms.) Regardless of a unique flavor or color here and there (Black Krim, Brandywine and others), they are, to me, unfit for a neighborhood garden in an underprivileged area. Hard enough to organize the garden. Hybrids are simply better in that specific situation.

      Thanks again.

  11. Linda said:

    This article states a falsehood about saving tomato seeds. They do NOT have to be cleaned and dried and in fact, are better with the gelatinous tomato juice left on them overwinter, as it protects them from germination until you are ready to use them. I came up with a way to save them, quickly, and brilliantly. Linda

    • George said:

      Thanks, Linda. Sounds interesting. I have never heard of this. Tomato seeds are usually a bit tricky. But cleaned and dried well, they last in dry storage about 6-7 years, and also, by our methods of introducing a form of semi-dormancy, the seed quality actually improves, depending on the type or variety. This would be, I assumed, of some value for the administrator of the community garden. Wouldn’t have to buy heirlooms for several years if you did it that way. But you bring up a good point—excellent really—for those that are truly year-to-year. I just didn’t want to go into all this detail in the piece. The Inquirer would never have published it!

      On the other hand, the point I was making is that saving seeds can be an added step or series of steps, and for old cultivars that haven’t the production value and ease and speed of growing that hybrids have. Perhaps if you shared the technique here at the old blog, you would help some community garden folks out who still wish to grow heirlooms.

      Thanks again.

  12. luise h. said:

    I could not agree with you more.In my opinion Heirloom varieties of Tomatoes belong in the Gardens of collectors that are willing to spend the time and effort that is required to bring these plants to yield any edible fruit at all. I was taken in by the lore of Heirlooms as well. After two miserable, almost “Tomatoeless” seasons I am returning to hybridized seeds.My vegetable plot is meant to supplement our table. The unusual, rarer plants are mostly found in my ornamental Garden where I am willing to spend the extra effort. And, would it not make more sense to start Gardeners in Community Gardens with seeds and plants that can assure success to keep them interested in their new endeavors.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Luise. Many heirloom vegetables, as well as newer varieties, make very attractive plants in an ornamental garden. As you point out, I was addressing the needs of community gardens in poor neighborhoods. Please post again.

  13. K Adams said:

    I’m very disappointed in the superficial treatment given to the issue.

    1. Many heirloom varieties have bunches more nutritional value and are actually more vigorous than their hybrid counterparts. (note the one tomato mentioned “Mortgage Lifter”-produces amazingly and is easy to grow). Many hybrids are good as well-it really is crop specific. Alas many seed vendors dont discriminate against gmo seed-that is a growing issue that the writer ignored.

    2. Hybrid vs Heirloom hmmm really? The People vs The Elite?? really? Anything that is more than 50yrs old seems to be categorized as heirloom by what I will call the neophyte gardening critics. Making this an issue of class warfare is absurd (and irresponsible)

    I would suggest that the writer get down off his rarefied chair and spend some time down here at Southern Seed Savers

    3. Better people need to be in charge of these community gardens. Social Service types are filling themm full of “pretty” plants (not necessarily Heirloom) to beautify and fill their own internal needs. But even worse-no one is teaching people what to do with the crop. Feast on Monday, let the rest rot (how about donating canning materials and letting them save their food for consumption throughout the year….Use the church or school commercial kitchen on the off hours to do it in)

    I am tired of self serving, superficially informed whining.

    Thanks for ;listening–

    Katherine Adams

    Former city poor now residing in the “elite” countryside

    • George said:

      Thanks much for posting, Katherine. You take serious issues up here. First, a bit of history. My company was the subject of harsh criticism, scurrilous lies and bizarre personal attacks, for no other reason than that we have been selling hybrids for, now, over 135 years. It began with an article by the then -unknown Michael Pollan in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article in October of 1992. It was filled with lies and disgraceful innuendos. I was stunned. Pollan must have read a poor book about heirlooms.

      In fact, Burpee was the first seed company based on scientific research in an industry—not unlike some parts of the heirloom sector—with a long background of folklore, myth, tradition and even deceit. Easy to fool a farmer back in the 1870s. He wouldn’t chase you and leave his family behind. Often did not speak English. Weren’t many cops or judges in rural areas. And often he’d discover the fraud several months later. This inherent vulnerability is the source of “farmer jokes”, despite the fact that farmers are among the smartest and wisest people in the world. So Mr. Burpee based his business on testing and screening out the bad from the good and also catching redundancies (due to two or more names used for the same vegetable cultivar). He became very successful, a household name, a folk hero. For example, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison visited Fordhook to discuss harvesting lactic acid from herbaceous plants in order to replace rubber importation. More important, Mr. Burpee revolutionized vegetable farming and home gardening by breeding and selecting new, non-European varieties for the American continent. Furthermore, many of these now-famous classics were open pollinated.

      Therefore, I did not appreciate my great company being the subject of scorn and ridicule in such newspapers the New York Times, mass-market gardening books and “non-profit” competitors’ so-called directories, which were, in reality, seed catalogues.

      Burpee has been growing and selling open-pollinated seed crops for many years. We sell more volume of vegetable garden seed than anyone. We are an easy target. So long as it is a fair fight, no problem. But false accusations or attacks—no way. I’ll come to you, as the kids say. If someone makes a claim, they need to be specific. So that is some general background.

      As for your comments, in paragraph #1, they seem vague, with “bunches more nutritious value” of “many heirloom varieties”. Which ones? As for “more vigorous” I think you mean “more vegetative”, since most so-called heirlooms are very late, so they need to ramp up their growth. They’re actually “weak”, which sounds ironic or counter-intuitive. But it is true. Many heirlooms lack the vigor to move through the vegetative state and produce enough energy to phase into sexual reproduction. ‘Brandywine’ is a good example. Great flavor, but I have seen several plants reach the second floor of a house before yielding a half bushel of tomatoes, total, late in the season.

      Mortgage Lifter’ is indeed a unique tomato, but not so productive as you describe, at least not that I have witnessed. Also, for a large-fruited heirloom, I find its flavor mild. And, like ‘Brandywine’ (but not quite as rampant), it grows to a very large size before flowering and fruiting a decent crop. It doesn’t photosynthesize as efficiently as a modern hybrid. That’s all I was trying to say with respect to community gardens in poor urban neighborhoods.

      I think you mean “site specific” rather than “crop specific”. Some old open pollinated varieties do very well in certain conditions. And even a commercial hybrid created for shipping (early and quick ripening, thick skin) can taste delicious when allowed to ripen on the vine. However, the great general merit of most hybrids is they do very well anywhere.

      I did not ignore the GMO controversy. It did not apply to the subject of my article. But, for your interest, I wrote an op/ed in a prominent newspaper. Heirloom Fundamentalists & Burpee, GMO And Monsanto Rumors Put To Rest. You may find them helpful.

      In paragraph #2 of your response, you suggest negative things about my intentions. In fact, I am not raising “class warfare” at all. I am trying to be helpful. Besides, I believe the US has no class structure. We are free of classes, except those we impose on ourselves or carry in our heads. As for the 50 year old heirloom part, this makes no sense to me. Your reference to “neophyte gardening critics” is vague. Who?

      An heirloom is technically never “sold”, in the European tradition. The practices of Native Americans—which rediscovering is when the so-called heirloom movement began by Gary Nabhan—involved the sharing of community varieties, bred in fact, and indeed suitable to various regions in some cases. I don’t know that there is a word for “heirloom”, as defined today, in the Hopi, Navajo, Sioux or Pawnee languages. Gary Nabhan’s work is monumental and has little to do with the later trumped-up controversies by Pollan, Whealy, et. al. That was sophistry and, in some cases, extraordinarily mean-spirited. Nabhan’s excellent and refreshing books on these and other topics speak for themselves.

      Your community garden comments were a bit harsh and condescending, in my opinion. I too have lived in poor neighborhoods (Humboldt Park and Uptown, both in Chicago). Most people there are tough and very resourceful. Few are incompetent. The only community gardens were occupied by Latinos and they took good care of them. This was in the 70s before the heirloom craze. They grew both open pollinated varieties and hybrids.

      I support, through the Burpee Foundation, many community gardens. All are staffed by excellent and qualified people. And nowhere do I see “frou-frou” ornamental displays. What flowers I do see are tall and handsome and in keeping with the spirit of a vegetable plot. Zinnias, sunflowers, butterfly plants such as Agastache.

      But your call for more education is a great one. We, too, work with church groups. In fact, I find them easier to work with than schools. Plus, they have people working throughout the summer. Big advantage.

      I hope you find these comments helpful. Thanks again for posting and I shall make an effort to come visit. I was raised in Illinois and Arizona. But my mother was born and raised in South Carolina, so I’m familiar with the south. I am a hybrid!

      Thanks and please post again.

  14. Sam said:

    George, what are the names of the hybrids that you have had good luck with and recommend? I have not planted tomatoes in years and could use some specific recommendations of current cultivars worthy of planting.

    Having grown up with the delicious and productive Glamour tomato (some label it a heirloom variety, although it didn’t hit the market until 1957), I was quite disappointed with the well publicized hybrids of the 70s and 80s (Boy and Girl etc.) that followed Glamour and pushed it out of the market. Those hybrids seemed less productive and were pretty dry, pale and tasteless by comparison to Glamour (I am assuming that they had less nutrients because of so much less flavor) and often had woody cores that had to be thrown away. Glamour made wonderful tasty, strongly flavored fried green tomatoes while the hybrids made such awful tasteless fried green tomatoes that I could not force myself to swallow them. I would recommend Glamour for any garden as it could survive and be productive in the weather extremes of southeastern Kansas. That includes months of June that had over 16 inches of rain or every day over 100 degrees.

    • George said:

      Thanks much, Sam. I’m a tomato sauce scientist, so to speak, so I have ‘Big Mama’ and ‘Health Kick’ in about 2/3 to 1/3 or 3/4 to 1/4 ratios. But for fresh eating, I still like “Better Boy’’. It is available as seed both at retail and online. It may not be as aromatic as “Big Boy” but it is fragrant enough for me. Its great virtue is its extraordinary productivity under any conditions. I have also been very impressed with our new “Big Daddy”. It may prove to be better, to me, than “Better Boy”.

      For giants, “Burpee’s Burger” edges out “Supersteak” because it is earlier, even if smaller. But “Porterhouse” might work for you if you haven’t had success with “Supersteak” (our most popular tomato), and you want really large fruits.

      For variety, I love “Orange Wellington”, a beautiful, meaty tomato that tastes every bit as good as a red tomato, which is very unusual. (Orange is my favorite color.)

      For pinks, “Brandy Boy” is nearly unbeatable. It has all the tangy, smoky, rich flavor of “Brandywine” but is over a week earlier, much more compact in plant habit and extremely more productive over a longer period.

      I don’t care for “small rounds”, cherries or the other types. But folks tell me “Fourth of July” is very good.

      As for “Glamour”, I don’t know it. Many early hybrids and commercial varieties were regionally oriented, and “Glamour” could be one. Kansas has a tough climate—subject to extreme swings in humidity and temperature. Not easy for most tomatoes. Try “Heatwave II”.

      Best of luck and thanks again for posting. Come back again !

  15. Steve said:

    For seed savers, it would seem important to grow only one variety. While cross-pollinated heirlooms might give interesting results, this would defeat the objective of keeping the strain pure.

    • George said:

      Thanks for posting, Steve. This makes it even more important to do careful research when making choices. One has to grow a few varieties at first, but it’s best to find the one that works for your situation and stick with it. In addition to the point about purity.

      Thanks again.

  16. Felder said:

    thanks for a MOST thoughtful and balanced article and ditto for the responses to comments. ’bout time we had someone who not only sees but also espouses – different sides of this issue.
    (not to mention that some heirloom veggies are BUTT UGLY)…

    • George said:

      Ladies and gentlemen, this is the great Felder Rushing who graces us with his comments. He is one of the very few greatest gardening speakers—if not the greatest—in the US. My favorite, anyway. (He’s a southerner, and I’m a half-southerner.) He practices garden advice as a low-key form of folk humor and wisdom. It is often quite memorable. He started the “puffy, frilly and spiky” routine. He is an original! Go to http://www.Felderrushing.net If you want someone to speak to your local garden club or group, he’s your man.

      Felder, thank you very much for the “sees but also espouses” compliment. Praise From Caesar.

      Best to you for the new year.

  17. katy nelson said:

    I am not interested in defending ‘heirloom’ varieties of vegetables versus the benefits of f1 hybrids, I do wonder what will happen to the genetic diversity of vegetables if people stop growing and sharing seed from open pollinated vegetable varieties, what do you think about this subject Mr. Ball?

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Katy. This is a really great question. I answer it as best I can at my Des Moines Register op/ed, which is reprinted here. Hybridization has been the single greatest factor in nature to increase genetic diversity. It sounds ironic, I do understand. Some folks argue with me savagely about this. But “diversity” involves using selected strains of variation in domesticated crops. Gardens are usually always diverse. In my opinion, “true” diversity involves both hybrids and the worthy heirlooms, such as we grow and sell at Burpee and The Cook’s Garden. I wish for no one to stop growing and sharing op seed. I was addressing the various costs and benefits of community gardens in underprivileged urban neighborhoods.

      Hope this helps and thanks again for an interesting response.

  18. Jennifer said:

    I read the bolg and listened to the interview. My question is are your hybrids naturally occuring hybrids or are they GMO’s?

  19. susan said:

    I am not opposed to hybrids, I just don’t use them. I like varieties of vegetables I can save the seeds from and know they are true to type. It creates food security when you don’t have to rely on someone else for your seeds. So I use both heirlooms and old commercial varieties.

    But I am going to have to agree that your article did create classes. And maybe that’s the case but I’m too poor to be considered elite lol whatever the case you made me feel like a snob for NOT planting hybrids. Though you may believe America is class-free it is not. People create social classes. Often for the soul purpose of making money. It’s called marketing. This is, afterall, how “Mortgage Lifter” got it’s name.

    I can say plant breeding has come a long long way and it’s pretty amazing! Is it possible that part of the problem with heirlooms is inbreeding depression? Happens with animals. And I know it happens with plants as well. The words “brittle, diesease ridden, and infertility ” scream that. It’s why hybrids are the way they are but that gets us into a huge discussion on genetics… lol

  20. susan said:

    Oh yes “Mortgage Lifter” got it’s name not due to actual production but rather it’s breeder sold transplants enough to pay off his mortgage. See marketing. :)

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