I am really enjoying New York Times' garden writer Michael Tortorello's humor and energy as a reporter. And in yesterday's newspaper, he did an intriguing piece questioning a form of political correctness he refers to as "heirloomism."
Are heirloom vegetables really better in a home garden? He interviews the always-amusing George Ball, CEO of Burpee. Ball's company is the largest seller of open-pollinated seeds in the country, yet Ball sees the condemnation of hybrids as Luddite nonsense. He suggests that inbreeding depression is inevitable in heirlooms: "Every product declines until it's replaced by new heirlooms."
Of course, until that day when a particular heirloom variety begins developing hip dysplasia like an overbred puppy, open-pollinated seeds do offer gardeners some advantages. They allow gardeners to save the seed from plants that seem particularly well-adapted to their growing conditions–and in a few generations wind up with something that performs even better for them than the original package.
However, I'm no absolutist. I see no reason hybrids bred for gardeners could not be fantastic. But, as the piece mentions, not enough universities and small farmers are breeding for gardeners. And those hybrids bred to meet the requirements of industrial farming probably explain why America's produce has grown less tasty and less nutritious over the years.
Also, so boring! The fun of heirlooms is their eccentricity–shocking colors, shapes, sizes, etc.
One more point in favor of heirlooms: they were bred before all kinds of modern inputs such as artificial fertilizers and pesticides were common. They may be tougher because of it. I spoke recently with a scientist who pointed out that older varieties may even develop symbioses with more effective microbes. For example, older varieties of soybeans attract rhizobia that do a better job of supplying nitrogen.