Seed confusion

One of the biggest source of confusion among new gardeners is seeds.  We hear about GMO seeds, hybrids, heirlooms and open pollinated, but what do they mean?  You want to plant the best seeds in order to have a great garden.  So where do we start.

GMO seeds are in the news a lot.  Every gardener that I know is anxious to avoid them at all costs.  They want to know where to buy seeds that won’t be GMO.  First of all a GMO seed is one that has been genetically altered in a lab.  A frankenseed, if you will.  They take genes from different species and splice them onto the seed gene.  Your corn may have fish genes in it to make it resistant to the pesticides applied to large fields of corn.  This is for field corn, but the genes have spread and found their way into many kinds of corn.  Other GMO crops are soybeans, cotton, papaya, canola, sugar beets, zucchini and rice will be on your table shortly.  Most of the seeds you buy will be unaffected by GMOs.  However, in order to be sure of not getting them, you need to buy from a trusted source that checks for the presence of the genes in their seeds.   You can’t buy GMO seeds without a grower license, but there can be contamination, especially in corn.

The thing that gets confused with GMOs the most, are hybrids.  Please be assured, they are not the same thing.  Our entire food supply has been developed over millenia by hybridizing plants to get the traits they want.   As an example, carrots were not originally orange.  They were developed for a king to be that color as a tribute.

A hybrid is a plant that is a cross of 2 or more of the SAME SPECIES.  There are no laboraties splicing genes.  It’s cross pollinating 2 varieties of something like broccoli, to get desired traits.  Big Boy tomatoes are an example.  They are grown to get the size, color, disease resistance and early development that gardeners are looking for.

A variety of seed packets

Many gardeners rely heavily on hybrids, which are designated as F1 varieties in catalogs.  They are generally easier to grow, and can be more prolific, than other varieties.  The problem develops if you want to be able to save seeds.  Hybrids won’t grow true to type if you save seed.  That Early Girl tomato seed that you saved will still grow a tomato, but it won’t be the same.  It will revert to one of it’s parents.  All hybrids must be labeled as such.  If they aren’t labeled a hybrid, they are open pollinated.  I’ll define those in a bit.

Annaheim pepper seeds

Heirlooms are all the rage right now.  The true definition of an heirloom is up for debate.  Some say it is a seed variety that is at least 100 years old, some say 50.  Heirlooms have been around a long time for a reason.  Taste is a huge reason to buy an heirloom.  Plus you’re tasting some history and growing something that your grandparents may have grown.  All you really need to know is that it is an older variety of open pollinated seed.

Open Pollinated seeds are the last category.  These are seeds that, if seed is saved, will grow true to type.  Heirlooms are all open pollinated.  In fact, almost any seed you find in the store will be open pollinated, but not necessarily heirloom.  OP seeds are hybrids that have stabilized their genetics.  The traits have been crossed for so long that they are now a variety of their own.  You can save seeds and grow your own Brandywine tomatoes forever.

Seedlings on the deck.

So, what kind of seeds should you buy?  That’s really up to you.  I try to buy from reputable seed dealers.  They have mail catalogs and online websites.  These seed houses will stand by their seeds, give you information on growing and even guarantee the viability of the seeds.

Most of what I grow is open pollinated, but that is just personal choice.  I like to save my own seed when I can.  However, for ease of growing, hybrids can be wonderful.  Many use them for things that aren’t as easy to collect seeds for.  Things like cabbage, broccoli, beets and carrots.  Tomato seeds are very easy to save, so I recommend a good heirloom variety.  Plus, the taste just can’t be beat.

Submitted by Heather Smith

About eSS&SC

The South Shore and South Coast has been home to hunting, gathering, fishing, farming––and great eating––for over 10,000 years. We are committed to identifying, devouring, and sharing all that Southeastern Massachusetts has to offer today and preserving local options for future generations.
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2 Responses to Seed confusion

  1. eSS says:

    Laurie, grafted plants are when they take a strong healthy plant, in this case probably a hybrid with vigor and graft another plant that may have some weaknesses on to it. In theory, it’s supposed to make a weaker heirloom, stronger. I haven’t heard tons about them. Since I only grow heirlooms, I can tell you that some are easier to grow than others. However, it’s pretty easy to find the ones that do well on their own by reading descriptions. I’m a big fan of Amish Paste and Cherokee Purple right now, but there are hundreds.

  2. eSS says:

    Great information Heather! Do you know anything about grafted vegetable plans? I’m very curious about grafted tomato plants I saw on the Burpee website.

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