Flick through the pages of many popular seed catalogues and you will notice an important distinction between the types of seeds they sell. Some are produced by regular means including 'heirloom' varieties, many of which have been around for hundreds of years. Others are marked as being F1 varieties which are hybrids. These typically cost a little more and have fewer seeds per packet. For the past few years I have almost exclusively grown organic heirloom varieties but this year I decided to test some of the claims made by seed suppliers about these hybrid F1 types – are they really more resistant to disease, more productive and better yielding?
How Hybrids are Produced
Hybrid seeds are produced by pollinating one parent variety with a different one – a laborious process usually done by hand to ensure pollen is transferred from the correct plants. The two parent plants are kept a secret by the plant breeders and each gives particular characteristics to the resulting seed.
For the gardener, hybrid seeds promise new higher-performing varieties. However, because they can only be produced from the exact cross-pollination process they need to be bought from the seed supplier every year. Add to this the general concerns about loss of genetic diversity (including the preservation of heirloom varieties) and it is easy to see why the issue of growing F1 hybrid seeds is contentious. The driving force behind new F1 varieties is often uniform pest resistant crops suitable for large mono-crop farming and supermarkets – very different to a gardener's preferences.
Hybrids Tested in a Real Garden
My experiment this year consisted of choosing F1 types which all promised clear improvements over the heirlooms I have been growing such as disease resistance, yield, taste or texture. I was intrigued to find out whether the actual crops could live up to the marketing hype. Now, 9 months on, here are the results:
|Vegetable and Hybrid Vareity||Reason Chosen||How it Performed|
|Beetroot: F1 Pablo|
(RHS Award of Garden Merit)
|Promised uniform roots that remain in the ground without becoming 'woody' in texture.||I was impressed with how easily this variety grew to a good size and with the quality of the round roots.|
|Zucchini: F1 Yolanda||Promised disease resistance to powdery mildew. Also described as a 'heavy cropper'.||A complete disappointment! Two courgette plants usually provide more than we can eat all summer. The fruit on this variety were very slow to grow and never increased in length beyond about 4 inches.|
|Cucumber: F1 Byblos||Promised disease tolerance to powdery mildew and cucumber mosaic virus, self pollination and smooth skinned seedless cucumbers.||A star variety – this has to be the most delicious cucumber I have ever tasted. Smooth skinned and seedless just as described.|
|Pak Choi: F1 Rubi||Described as having beautiful red leaves which deepen in colour in cool weather.||Slugs ate all the seedlings (despite putting out slug traps)! Oh well...|
|Spinach: F1 Scenic||Promised high yield and resistance to downy mildew.||Gave a good first crop but didn't produce much after that. Leaves were high quality.|
|Sweet Corn: F1 Sundance|
(RHS Award of Garden Merit)
|Sold as an early maturing corn during cool British summers.||Everyone who tasted this remarked on how sweet and tender the kernels were and it lived up to the promise of fully maturing during a very wet summer.|
|Tomato: F1 Fantasio||Promised blight tolerance and resistance to tobacco mosaic virus, verticilium and fusarium wilts and nematodes.||Very disappointed with this. It was resistant to blight and everything else but the quantity of fruit was low and several rotted on the vine before maturing. Could have been partly to do with the wet summer but I was growing these in a greenhouse...|
Alongside these I grew a few other varieties which also promised improvements but weren't hybrids:
|Sweet Pepper: Corno di Torro Rosso||Said to be a high-yielding and tasty pepper.||Just as described when grown in my greenhouse – lovely tasty red pointed peppers.|
|French Bean: Cobra||Promised round stringless pods which could be picked over a long period.||These were almost perfect stringless French beans which kept cropping over a number of weeks – a real hit.|
|Onion: Hytech (heat treated)||Heat treated onion sets are less likely to bolt and should therefore grow to a better size.||A very dry late spring resulted in little initial growth and disappointing results. Probably not a fair test, since any onions would struggle to do well in those conditions.|
These results are very mixed. Some varieties, such as the sweet corn F1 Sundance and cucumber F1 Byblos were amazing. Even though I knew that corn is one of the plants that most benefit from hybrid techniques I was surprised at the difference between this and the standard variety I had been growing. Others, such as tomato F1 Fantasio and zucchini F1 Yolanda were disappointing. Yes, they showed strong resistance to disease but that seemed to come at the price of a poor crop. It's impossible for me to rule out the particularly wet summer we experienced here as the cause of this but despite that I have had much better results from traditional varieties.
Hybrids weren't the only successes though. The capsicum Corno di Torro Rosso and French bean Cobra were just as impressive in their performance, proving that you don't always have to have F1 varieties to see great results.
What has become clear to me is that seed companies are quick to tell you all the advantages of the latest hybrid seeds but this still leaves a lack of 'real-world' information. In particular they are so intent on selling the wonders of their selections that they don't give you much information about why NOT to select a particular variety. I'm sure courgette F1 Yolanda performs wonderfully in many show gardens but I would have found it very helpful to know that it produced smaller fruit than other varieties. Tomato F1 Fantasio may have fantastic blight resistance but what use is that if the fruit rot in the typically damp conditions that are prevalent in my area?
Will I be switching to F1 varieties in the future? For the most part, no, I will continue to grow the organic heirloom types. However, I have to admit that I will find it hard to resist the charms of the F1 sweet corn and cucumbers and as I enjoy trying something new each year I'm not ruling out hybrids.