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Choosing Seeds for the Garden

by Don Janssen, Extension Educator

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Deciding which vegetable crops to plant is often easier than selecting specific varieties. The crop decision boils down to whether you like beans or sweet corn or Swiss chard and whether you have room for it. Deciding which of perhaps dozens of bean varieties may be a little trickier.

There are lots of choices. Bush beans or pole beans? Green beans or yellow beans? Standard round-podded snap beans or the flat Italian type? Hybrid or open-pollinated varieties? The price difference between hybrid and standard varieties of the same crop may be significant. The obvious question is why should you pay the higher price for the hybrid when the standard variety is a proven performer.

That higher price stems from the years of exacting work that it takes to produce a new hybrid. Carefully chosen parent plants must be cross-pollinated by hand to try to produce offspring with special characteristics, such as disease resistance or seedlessness or plants with a certain growth habit. Then the resulting seed has to be grown out and the plants evaluated. The right combination may not occur the first time; finding it may take years. Then the developer has to produce sufficient seed to meet projected demand.

With open-pollinated varieties, the process is a bit simpler: plant it in a field, let the wind or insects move pollen around, and harvest the resulting seed.

So, how do you choose? Gardeners who want to harvest seed from this year's garden to plant next year's will want to stick with open-pollinated varieties. These plants "breed true" -- that is, the plants grown from the seed they produce will be very similar to the parent plants. Seeds harvested from hybrids, on the other hand, may produce plants very unlike their parents. The results, though interesting, are unpredictable and often disappointing.

When hybrids cross-pollinate, their more desirable characteristics may be lost in the shuffling of genetic material. The desirable characteristics of hybrids often include uniformity -- in plant size and habit, flowering and fruiting times, flower color and fruit size -- improved disease resistance and wider adaptability to environmental stress. All of these together translate into healthier, more productive plants.

If you buy fresh seed every year and want the most productive, least problem-prone garden, hybrids are probably the way to go. If you want to save seed from this year’s garden to plant next year’s, open-pollinated varieties would be a better choice. Vegetables usually available as open-pollinated varieties include snap beans, snap peas, English peas, popcorn, ornamental corn, sweet corn, lettuce, cabbage, beets, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, onions, leeks, radishes, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons and herbs.

Some catalogs list hybrids and standard varieties separately; others indicate hybrids by placing "F1" after the names.

Which should you choose? Why not both?

(This resource was updated January 2007 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office