Heirlooms v hybrids: What's the big deal?

Gardeners may be confused between heirloom and F1 hybrid plants, and which are better to grow. Mr Benjamin Ang, 28, a manager at HortPark, gives The Straits Times the facts.

Q What are heirloom plants?

A They are open-pollinated (when pollination occurs naturally) plants that have been grown from seeds that have been passed down from the same line over an extended period of at least 30 years.

They can go back centuries, and some plants I have were grown since the 1800s.

Q What are F1 hybrids?

A Hybrids occur when two plants with different genetic characteristics within the same species are deliberately crossed so that the offspring inherit the best traits of both parents.

"F1" simply means that this is the first level of offspring.

Q Why do people choose to grow heirloom plants?

A First, because they are known to do well. For example, an heirloom plant from Italy is still grown there because it is known to thrive in the country.

However, as far as I know, we do not have a database of heirloom plants that thrive in Singapore's climate.

Second, heirloom plants are bred for their flavour.

A lot of them are grown by hobbyists.

Their flavour was originally found to be so good that they are still grown despite the availability of more disease-resistant or high-yield-producing varieties.

Q Should we then grow F1 hybrids?

A You should buy F1 hybrid seeds because they are some of the best seeds you can find.

However, there isn't a need to create your own hybrids unless it is for fun, and unless you know the exact traits you want.

It is easier to source for seeds that are tried and tested.

On that note, the vegetables you buy in supermarkets are most probably F1 hybrids, which means you should not save the seeds from them and replant them, because they will not produce vegetables with the characteristics of the plant you bought.

Hybrid plants do not have stable genetics, and the F2 generation will be of unpredictable quality.

Singaporeans often want to save money, but they do not realise that the few dollars they save on buying seeds will be outweighed by the cost of the soil, fertilisers and the time spent growing plants that do not have the characteristics they expect.

Q Between heirloom plants and F1 hybrids, which would you recommend then?

A If you are starting out in gardening, I would recommend hybrid seeds because they are bred for robustness.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2017, with the headline 'Heirlooms v hybrids: What's the big deal?'. Print Edition | Subscribe