What is Open Pollination?
A hybrid plant is one that is cross-pollinated and whose offspring is not likely to match the parent.
What Does Hybrid Mean?
Open pollination means that a seed has been allowed to pollinate naturally. To understand what open pollination is, it is easiest to start by considering what has happened to seeds over many years of scientific experimentation. When browsing through a seed catalog or perusing seedlings at the local nursery, you will often see plants that are called hybrids, meaning that these varieties have been developed by cross-pollinating two different varieties over time.
The reason this is done is to take the best properties of each plant and blend them together to make a superior specimen. For example, if one variety has excellent taste but is prone to disease and another is naturally disease-resistant but isn't the best tasting, cross-pollinating these two plants may produce a superb line that is both delicious and resistant to common diseases. This is what hybridization is all about.
Some important examples of hybrid tomatoes include Celebrity, Sweet 100, Early Girl, Better Boy, or Sun Gold, the latter of which is considered one of the best tasting hybrids available.
When a hybrid plant is perfected, the seed must be carefully cultivated each year to maintain the specific properties that made it stand out. This means that a gardener cannot recreate this seed on his own, since the offspring of the hybrid plant will have different properties, or not grow true to the original source of the seed.
Some gardeners feel that this is a way for seed companies to guarantee repeat customers year after year. Others appreciate the increased yields and disease resistance they get from hybrids. Either way, a hybrid seed is only true for the first year.
Just because a hybrid will only be guaranteed to grow true to form for one year does not mean you cannot save the seed and plant it next season. In fact, the resulting produce just may be better than the original - you never know. It is a risk, however, and it may not work out very well.
An open pollinated plant is one that is pollinated by nature via insects or wind and is likely to match the parent exactly if there is enough space between it and other varieties.
What Is Open Pollination?
The opposite of a hybrid seed is one that is open pollinated. Another term that is frequently used to describe this property is heirloom, representing that the seed has been passed down from generation to generation. An heirloom seed is open pollinated, but it's not necessarily true that an open pollinated seed is an heirloom. Only the passing of time and care of the seed will allow it to have that distinction.
Heirloom seeds have never been tampered with since they were perfected and remain perfectly true to form each season. The most popular heirloom tomato lines include Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Yellow Pear, Amana Orange, or Green Zebra. All of these are excellent in taste and worth a spot in your square foot garden.
Because these varieties have not been cross-bred with others, they very often have a lower tolerance for disease and produce less fruit per plant than their hybrid counterparts. Still, they do quite well and it is easy to have a bountiful harvest growing solely heirloom plants.
If seed saving is of interest to you, it's important to allow a bit of space between your plants to avoid excessive cross-pollination - 20 feet or more is best. Remember, these plants are open pollinated, so they will feel free to mix with their neighboring plants to produce seed that is different that the one used to grow the parent plants. If greater distance is possible between the varieties it is even better.
For those that like to experiment, don't worry about the space - just let them grow. Who knows, you might save the seed and end up with a vegetable crop next year that is second to none, and if that crop is planted away from others, it could become new heirloom line for your family a few generations from now.
Hybrid vs. Open Pollinated Plants
In the end, it's really up to each person whether they prefer one type of plant or the other. For the highest yields and greatest disease resistance, hybrid plants have a lot to offer. However, where pure taste and interest is desired, open pollinated or heirloom plants are an excellent choice.