Flick through the pages of any seed catalogue and you'll find listings for hundreds, if not thousands of different vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Each listing states if the seed is open-pollinated, heirloom, or a hybrid. But what does that mean? If you're interested in saving seeds then you need to be familiar with the different terms. By saving your own seeds you’re helping to preserve heritage varieties, many of which are in danger of being lost. But be sure to only save seeds from heirloom or open-pollinated plants
Open-pollinated seeds are from fruit and vegetables that have been pollinated in the most basic way.
They all need either insects, animals, or wind to pollinate them.
Unlike hybrids, open-pollinated seeds will grow into plants that are true to form. In other words, the plant and its fruit will have the same characteristics as the parent plant. Open pollinated seeds are reliable for saving from season to season.
Heirloom seeds, (sometimes called Heritage) are seeds that have been passed down through generations of farmers and gardeners.
There's a difference of opinion in how old a variety needs to be in order to be called an Heirloom. Generally, the name refers to seeds that have been around since before the 1930's. The 1930’s marks the beginning of chemical-dependent farming and the beginning of plants developed to grow well with those new 'improved' fertilizers. Many heirloom seeds were brought with the first settlers from their homelands and have stood the test of time so you can be sure of great tasting vegetables that grow well without the use of chemical fertilizers.
If generations of gardeners have continued to save those seeds every gardening year since the early 1900’s, then they must be worth growing. Be aware that they may have lower yields and be slower growing than modern hybrids, but the superior taste will make it worth the wait. Plants have the ability to adapt to the environment in which they are grown. Over time, a Brandywine tomato grown in a north-west garden will taste very different to one grown in a southern garden. For this reason, I always buy seeds from a company that collect their seeds from plants that were grown in a similar climate and environment to my own.
All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated (although not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms). That means you can save seeds from this season's harvest to plant next year.
Hybrid seeds are the result of cross-pollination between two varieties of the same type of plant, eg. two different types of tomatoes.
The grower carefully selects two varieties with desirable qualities and combines them to create a new, improved variety. Not to be confused with genetically modified plants, there is nothing undesirable about selective breeding. Hybrid vegetables are often earlier and higher yielding than heirloom vegetables, as well as being more resistant to disease or averse growing conditions. However, seeds produced by the plants will not grow the same as its parent plant, so you can't save the seeds for the next season.
Hybrid seeds are either "F1" (first-generation offspring) or "F2" (second-generation offspring).
Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds are the result of artificially making new plants by inserting genes into the parent plant.
The introduced genes may have come from another plant, a bacterium or other microorganism, an animal, or even a lab-created gene. Unlike a hybrid seed, the process would never happen in the natural world. Genetically modified seeds are mostly developed for commercial crops, such as corn, cotton, soy, canola, and sugar beets.
It's unlikely that a seed company would offer GM seeds to home gardeners, with the two exceptions, possibly being sweet corn and summer squash. However, the chance of buying seeds that have been accidentally cross-contaminated with GM genes is high, especially for vegetables that are closely related to widely planted GM crops, such as field corn, soybeans, and beets.
You can avoid GM seeds by purchasing seeds from companies that have signed the safe seed pledge. Choose heirloom, open-pollinated, or older hybrid varieties. To find a list of companies that have taken the safe seed pledge go to Council of Responsible Genetics.
A book I always refer to when I’m saving seeds is Seed Sowing and Saving: Step-by-Step Techniques for Collecting and Growing More Than 100 Vegetables, Flowers, and Herbs by Carole B. Turner
The Safe Seed Pledge:
"Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative. We pledge that we do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political, and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities.
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