A Brief Dictionary Of Seed Descriptions Found In Seed Catalogs written by Dean Mullis.
Looking through your favorite seed catalog can be a bewildering experience. Terms such as hybrid, heirloom, open-pollinated, etc. are used to describe the seeds. There are treated seeds, conventional seeds, organic seeds, and even GMO seeds. What does it all mean?
There are two basic types of seeds in your favorite seed catalog, open-pollinated or hybrid. So what does that mean? If your aim is to just grow a garden and you don't intend to save seeds, it means you don't have to worry about whether the seed is open-pollinated or hybrid, just buy the seeds you want to grow. Some of the other seed descriptions might influence your purchase though.
Below are some basic definitions but even at a basic level it can get a bit confusing.
Open-pollinated seeds: These are seeds that if you save and re-plant, you will get basically the same plants next year. In the seed catalog, these may be listed as open-pollinated, OP, or no description at all. Until open-pollinated seeds became a buzzword, it was understood that unless a variety was listed as a hybrid, it was open-pollinated. If you save seed from OP seeds it does not mean you will get cookie cutter offspring the next year. The seeds are genetically diverse. For example, there are several strains of Brandywine tomato. Different folks have saved Brandywine seed for different traits based on size, color, flavor, yield, etc.
Hybrid seeds: Hybridization of seeds occurs naturally and has been practiced by farmers in a hit and miss fashion for thousand's of years. It is basically when two varieties in the same family of plants cross-pollinate to produce a third variety. You may remember Mendel's experiments with peas in the 1860's from freshman high school biology. Seeds from a hybrid will not come true, the seed will revert back to one of the parent lines. A common example of this is when volunteer tomatoes sprout up in the garden or compost pile and produce small tomatoes we always called “tommy toes". Hybrid seeds will be listed in the seed catalog as hybrid, F1, or F1 hybrid. F1 means it is a first generation cross.
Now to get into the mess of the rest of the descriptions.
Organic: Seeds certified to be grown without chemical inputs, may be OP or hybrid.
Heirloom: A variety that has been passed down for generations, always OP but may not be organic, may be conventional and treated but probably not.
Treated: Seed coated with fungicide, not organic, could be OP or hybrid.
Conventional: Seeds that are not certified organic. Could be treated, heirloom, OP or hybrid.
GMO Seed: GMO stands for genetically modified organism. It involves manipulating genes of different species and inserting them into the DNA of seeds of commercial agricultural crops. The most common application is commercial corn, cotton, and soybeans that have been engineered to be Round-up Ready, which means these plants have been genetically engineered to live when sprayed with Round-Up while every other living plant in the field is killed by the herbicide Round-Up.
What most people do not realize is the vastness of GMO crops in NC and the USA. Because high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil, are used so much in the processing of what passes for food in our grocery stores, 60-70% of the food in the grocery store contains ingredients from GMO crops.
Gardening / Seed Buying Advice.
Don't get too hung up on the definitions, what you grow in your garden is going to be much better than what is available at the grocery store. The garden I grew up with was not organic, we planted pink seeds, Daddy used 10-10-10 fertilizer, and Momma was fond of Sevin dust. They still do it that way.
2010 is my 22ndyear of organic market farming. I would rather eat a tomato or beans freshly picked out of Momma's garden any day over certified organic stuff from California that has spent a week on a truck.
I hope you enjoyed Dean's seed explanations as much as I did-all the different types can be confusing-especially for folks who are just starting to raise a garden.
Dean has a website-Laughing Owl Farm. Dean also has a free monthly newsletter you can sign up for-it's always full of interesting goings on at his farm and it's full of humor too. If you're lucky enough to live in the Charlotte NC area-you can find Dean or his wife at one of the local markets selling their organic produce and eggs.