Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Beginner Gardeners, Start With Hybrids!

I was worried when he said he was planting that tomato in a pot on his patio.  Growing vegetables in containers is supposed to be easy but I haven't had much success with it, myself.  I tried to warn him.  "But. But. Tomatoes need so much water!  And containers in general need so much water!  Are you sure?"  In reality, I should have known better than to give an Heirloom Brandywine to somebody who's never had a garden before, that has a nearly fully shaded yard, the one sunny spot a piece of concrete.   Brandywine tomatoes are humongous.  Big tomatoes need lots of water!  And this one was started from seed, late.  Half assed taken care of.  It didn't stand a chance.

Last year, like usual, I sowed way more tomato seeds than I needed.  We'd originally planned to have a plant sale to raise money for Forest Park Community Garden but as it turned out, we didn't have enough places to sell everything we'd grown and before we knew it, it was past time for kitchen gardens to be planted.  Desperate, not ready to compost the few I had left, I convinced my office mate to take one of the spindly leftover Brandywines.  Between the squirrels and his toddler thinking they were balls, I believe he only got two tomatoes the entire season.  It didn't produce very many to start with.  I still feel responsible that his first gardening experience wasn't life altering like mine was.  It got me thinking that, for new gardeners, rather than starting them out with Heirloom varieties like I did in the case of the spindly Heirloom Brandywine, hybrids might be the way to go, for three reasons.
  1. They're prolific.  As a new gardener it can be pretty devastating to coddle a plant all season only to harvest a few tomatoes.  Hybrids are bred to be much more prolific than Heirlooms.  When you grow an Heirloom tomato, you go in knowing that whatever fruit you get will probably be amazing, but you probably won't get very many. Hybrids still taste good and they are consistent, heavy producers.
  2. They're disease resistant.  Aside from watering, new gardeners, especially ones committed to organic gardening, are pretty clueless about how to prevent or treat disease.  And at least in my experience, Heirlooms seem more susceptible to them.  Hybrids are bred to resist the most common diseases effecting that particular plant variety. 
  3. They're easy to find.  Although Heirloom varieties are popping up more in big box stores and I've even found some at my local grocery store over the past 2 years, hybrids are everywhere.  
As a beginning gardener, especially a tomato gardener, (nearly all of them are!) the focus ought to be on finding a good sunny spot, getting in the habit of regular and appropriate watering, proper staking and all that stuff.  A good friend of mine always told me that successes build on each other.  That is particularly true with gardening.  My first year, I bought whatever was sold at my local big box store.  And my garden was so successful that I wanted to expand it, explore new varieties, try out these Heirlooms I'd read tasted so amazing.  By that time I had enough experience under my belt that I felt confident I could take on these sometimes harder to grow plants.  I'm pretty sure that, had I started gardening with Heirlooms I would have been so discouraged by their production and my lack of knowledge of how to control pests and diseases organically that I may not have ever gardened again.  I grow mostly Heirlooms now but I always have at least one hybrid tomato because I know that guarantees me tomatoes in case all the Heirlooms fail to produce or die from disease.
    This year my office mate has agreed to give tomato growing another shot.  Not only that, I've recruited two new coworkers willing to try gardening.  They're all growing in containers. I'm planning to give them each one Sungold Cherry Tomato plant and one New Girl.  Both these hybrid tomatoes should be reliable, easy to grow and prolific, even in containers.   I want them to love gardening this year, not to stress over it.  I want them to learn and marvel and feel gratified.  If my plan works, they will make the same natural progression towards those old delicious Heirloom varieties many of us experienced gardeners have.

    I know the hardcore gardeners will likely gasp over me openly endorsing hybrids here, but I have given this a lot of thought.  My goal is to grow new gardeners, not one-year-gardeners.  And I believe that starting with hybrids increases the chance that a person will continue gardening beyond that first, difficult year.

    As a new gardener, did you start with hybrids or Heirlooms?  Either way, what was your experience?

    6 comments:

    1. I'm in no way against hybrids (gasp! shock! horror! probe!). But I want to note for the record that I have grown many an heirloom tomato in a container in less than optimum sun. :) I am, however, a huge tomato lover. :) And hybrids do produce better, which may be important to the newbie gardener who doesn't have (whistles) 16 other tomato plants. I would recommend the heirloom cherry tomatoes (yellow or red pear, for example) to newbies growing in pots--they are prolific regardless.

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    2. When I started growing my own veggies a few years ago, it was because of the inspiration I got from reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. So of course I bought all heirloom, non-GMO seeds. I had beginner's luck or something, because I had great success right from the start. Not everything flourished equally, of course, but by and large, I had beautiful produce and not much problem with pests. Over the past few years I've found that certain veggies do better than others in my garden, but I'm also working to improve the soil with my own compost and have created a couple of raised beds. I'm sort of a wing-it-and-hope-for-the-best kind of person, and so far, it's worked pretty well.

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    3. As a (still) novice gardener, I appreciate this! It can be so intimidating, even with people to guide you, that getting into the rhythm is a challenge.

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    4. When I started gardening, I didn't know an heirloom from a hybrid, so I have no idea what it was I planted!

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    5. Gina- this is a great post! I absolutely agree with what you've said here. My first garden was hybrids, and over time as I gained more experience and knowledge, I dipped my toes into the heirloom pool, to mixed results. This year's garden is a nice mix of both that I feel confident about.

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    6. I don't know why but I'm kind of shocked by the recommendation. Welcome to the dark side, ha.

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