Deciphering Seeds

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like I should be planting peas this winter. This crazy weather has tricked me into feeling like Spring is just around the corner, even though Old Man Winter had only recently arrived.

While I have restrained myself enough to refrain from putting peas into the ground, I have been loosely planning my gardening endeavours for when Spring finally does show up. Yesterday brought me the delight of my first shipment of seeds which I ordered last month. Yes, I already have my garden seeds. While large stores like Target and Wal-Mart are now carrying a nice assortment of seeds (and now organic or heirloom varieties, too), I prefer to buy mine through seed catalogs that are shipped around the first of the year and contain a much wider selection than is offered at local stores. That wider selection also requires an expanded vocabulary: GMO, treated, untreated, hybrid, open-pollinated, heirloom, organic… what does it really mean, and which is best? One of the catalogs that came in the mail last month was from Bountiful Gardens. I ordered a few things from them last year, and while I didn’t need any seeds from them this year, their catalog had a wonderful page of seed definitions that I wished I’d had years ago. I thought I’d share the info (in my own words and with my own meager experience thrown in) here for anyone who hasn’t ordered seeds yet, or will be doing their garden planning a bit later.

  • Organic: Organic seeds must be certified by an organization that is authorized by the USDA to stamp that friendly green and white circular symbol shown below. The parent plants must have been grown according to organic standards (no chemicals, not genetically engineered, etc), but the seeds can be of a hybrid variety and do not have to be heirloom or open-pollinated. These seeds may cost more because of the cost associated with USDA certification, but are necessary to use for those wishing to grow vegetables that are certifiable to be labeled “organic.” Organic is more than chemical-free! When I am ordering seeds, organic is nice, but not at all necessary.

Your friendly organic seal

  • Open-pollinated: These seeds can be considered “purebreds” of the plant kingdom. The seeds from the parent plant will produce the same kind of plant, with small variations in the individual plant. The plants were bred in a natural way (outside of a lab and through pollination) until they became a stable variety. A gardener can save the seeds from a plant and know that the same type of plant will grow from those seeds, provided they were not cross-pollinated by another variety. For example, if I save the seeds from an Olpaka tomato (a variety I grew last year and really enjoyed), I can plant those seeds this year and get more Olpaka tomato plants. If the fruit those seeds came from was cross-pollinated with a different tomato variety, say a cherry tomato type, I may get something completely different. For that reason, people who grow open-pollinated plants in order to save seeds must keep certain varieties isolated in order to avoid cross-pollination. I prefer to buy open-pollinated seeds in case I want to save them, though I only do it occasionally. I like the idea of using seed that produces “after its kind” (Genesis 1). These seeds can be organic, but only if they have gone through the certification process.
  • Heirloom: These are open-pollinated strains that are at least 50 years old. They are often very resilient and tasty, though not necessarily superior to more modern plant breeds. I hear a lot from people wanting heirloom tomato varieties, but the term seems to be misapplied often.
  • Hybrid: Hybrid seeds are an unstable cross between two different parent varieties. That means planting seeds from a hybrid plant will result in an unknown variety, or no new plant at all, as hybrid seeds are sometimes sterile. They are not genetically engineered as they are produced through traditional plant breeding techniques, and they could be compared to mutts, as opposed to purebreds. The parent plants are usually not made known so as to protect the interests of the seed producer. Hybrid plants produce very uniform and predictable results, with often great-tasting and visually-appealing produce. Hybrid seed can also be certified organic and will be labeled as “hybrid” or “F1”. I read once that animals, if given a choice, will tend to eat open-pollinated corn varieties over hybrids, so when I have the option, I try to avoid hybrids. Some people avoid hybrids over ethical issues that don’t personally concern me that much.
  • GMO seed: The Frankenfood seed! This is a real problem. These seeds are produced in a laboratory where genetic information from non-plant organisms (like fish or bacteria… yummy) is inserted into a plant’s genetic information, producing a seed that produces a plant that produces a pollen which will cross-pollinate with normal plants and contaminate a whole lot of them. The most genetically-engineered seeds are used in the production of corn, soy, and canola, as well as now sugar beets, alfalfa, and peanuts. These seeds aren’t used for home garden use, but home gardeners may end up with seed that has been contaminated with GMO seed. GMO seeds can never be organic.
  • Treated seed: These are coated with pesticides or fungicides to promote better germination. Corn is frequently treated with a fungicide. I don’t plant treated seed.
  • Untreated seed: Take a guess Captain Obvious. This would be seed that does not have fungicides or pesticides applied. This is what I plant.

That’s not so bad, is it?

I ordered about 15 seed catalogs last year based off of suggestions from Mother Earth News. I now purchase most of my seeds in a big group order through a company called Fedco, where I get a nice discount on top of their already competitive prices, and then fill in any gaps through other suppliers.

Spring, come quickly!


4 comments on “Deciphering Seeds

  1. […] year when I posted on the various types of seeds available to home gardeners, I linked to an article from Mother Earth News that listed some fabulous seed catalogs. From those […]

  2. Thanks for the nice clarifications; very helpful! I’d like to order from Fedco because they have good prices and lots of variety. I’ve ordered from them at least 3 times and have had problems each time. Is it just me?

  3. […] has a guide to Deciphering Seeds and what terms like “open-pollinated” and “heirloom” really […]

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