Of course hybrid plants. This is the Plantswoman, not the Carwoman. Hybrids are not very fashionable in the upper reaches of the gardening world right now. Generally hybrid plants do not come true from their own seed. This creates a bonanza for seed sellers and garden centers since a gardener can’t just save seed from one year to the next–new seeds or plants have to be purchased every year.
The riot of tomatoes pictured above are not hybrids; some are heirlooms, meaning they have been around for generations and all are open-pollinated, meaning the seeds can be saved and replanted to produce the same tomato year after year. Taste is the most important criteria in these older varieties. It doesn’t matter that they are ‘homely’ looking, misshapen and have little shelf life. Sadly, I have had little success growing them or any other non-hybrid vegetable.
Although hybrids are produced by the most aggressive corporate plant and seed dealers, nature is also a great hybridizer of plants. Hybrids are simply a cross between two plant varieties, a cornerstone of the evolution of plants. Because of all this natural development, most ancient wild plants are no longer recognizable. Two plants growing near each other, the wind, a few pollinators and voila’, something new and different, but often with an added bonus of something called ‘hybrid vigor.’
Plant scientists at the John Innes Centre sought a reason why second generation crosses have more vigor than their parent plants. They rejected natural selection as a key factor in the vigor question. And they concluded that closely related plants have a type of genetic ‘noise’ caused by a high degree of variation in gene activity. That noise is cancelled in hybrids, and the reduced gene activity fortuitously leads to greater vigor. link
Natural selection has been so closely associated with evolution that we overlook other processes that drive life evolving from one form to another. A favorite scientist I cite regularly, Stephen Jay Gould, tells us that “many evolutionists argue that substantial amounts of genetic change may not be subject to natural selection and may spread through the populations at random.” Even Charles Darwin believed natural selection had received too much attention. link
So instead of some plodding path, when plants cross, a little miracle happens. Many home gardeners love the mystery and magic that occurs when breeding their own varieties–seeking a positive genetic outcome after patiently crossing plants year after year. I do not have that much patience, but I am not using old seed lying around the house or seed from local stores this year. I ordered from a respected seed house, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. And I have ordered only hybrid seeds for spring and summer 2018 for two reasons . First, I seek the disease resistance bred into most modern hybrids. An I need the vigor.
My seeds are germinating in seed flats (potting soil in aluminum cake pans). Much is made on the internet and in gardening books about germination. But seeds kept wet and warm will pop up and mine always thrive under my indoor grow lights. The problem is the transition to the garden. Transplants get pounded by rain, eaten by rabbits and squirrels and devoured by insects. Once broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other cool weather plants get a foot tall, all is well, so a plant that can grow fast is a plant that can stay alive. In addition, all cool weather plants must race to their finish before the killing summer heat arrives.
My fall vegetable garden of 2017 was not a great success. The weather was extremely wet, the cold came early and bit hard, the insects were voracious. So many excuses. But my practical seed selections have not leaned toward what will be delicious, only what will survive. Next week: taste in the garden. Poor taste, left out too often.