Even seasoned gardeners have trouble understanding seed terminology and knowing the different designations between vegetable seeds is important to many of us. We’ve heard that heirlooms are good and GMO seeds are bad, however many gardeners have no idea as to why. We’re going to take a look at all of these terms so that you can make informed and educated decisions when it comes to choosing varieties to feed your family.

What is a GMO seed and can you purchase them?

GMO seeds get a ton of bad press and just about all of the seed vendors state that their offerings are not GMO. That is an easy statement to make. These genetically modified seeds are expensive to produce and the manufacturers sell to large, commercial farmers. You can’t go and purchase a packet of GMO beans, radishes or cucumbers from your local garden center or on-line store. GMO seeds are field crops and are limited to corn, canola, soybeans and other commercially grown crops. Scientists have manipulated the genetic make up in labs and have inserted material from non-related organisms into the gene pool to enhance pest control, harvest and other desirable traits. People wanting to avoid this don’t want any GMO products. Be more concerned about the make up of your tortilla chips or cooking oil. The home gardener seed houses are simply responding to the public’s desire to avoid GMOs, even though their products aren’t even available that way. Even if the seed packet or advertisement doesn’t state that it is non-GMO, it isn’t. Be more concerned with growing your garden to avoid killing your pollinator insects with the chemicals you use.

These organic, blue corn tortilla chips are made from non-GMO corn and are also vegan, kosher and gluten-free.

What is a hybrid seed?

Many people confuse hybrid seeds with GMOs and that is a false assumption as well. A hybrid is simply a cross between two plants of the same species to hopefully bring out the best traits of both. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with hybrid plants as far as human health is concerned. They have been bred to increase size, harvest or shipability. The beloved Big Boy tomato is a hybrid plant and it has had a devoted following for decades. The only things I see wrong with hybrids is that they do not come true from saved seeds, sometimes flavor is lacking and the skins are tougher to make shipping easier. Since hybrid plants are a cross between two different plants of the same species, saved seed will often have unpredictable features. Out of a dozen saved seeds from our hypothetical hybrid plant, we could have just as many unrelated-looking and producing siblings. If you want to save seeds, hybrids are not for you, otherwise enjoy the harvest.

These seedling heat mats are great for keeping your seed starting mix warm and helps with germination.

What are open-pollinated seeds?

Open pollinated seeds are seeds that produce identical offspring from season to season. You can save open pollinated seeds from year to year. However, you should properly isolate the plants from others of the same species so that they won’t cross-pollinate with each other. The saved seeds will then be hybrids and the next generation won’t be identical to the parent. The Rutgers tomato is open pollinated, but not heirloom, even though it is listed on many heirloom sites. It was developed by Rutgers University with input by the Campbell’s Soup Company in 1934 and has been a favorite of many tomato growers for just about as long. It has a thin skin, which makes it unsuitable for automated harvesting and shipping and they last only days after harvesting instead of weeks, however they are a superior choice for home gardeners. Clemson Spineless okra is another long-time favorite open pollinated vegetable that is not heirloom, although it often shows up in heirloom catalogs. The seeds of both of these vegetables can be saved and the offspring will be identical to the parent plant.

Rutgers tomato seeds are one of the best all-purpose tomatoes you can grow

Here are the Clemson Spineless okra seeds to go with the Rutgers tomato.

What are heirloom seeds?

Heirloom plants are all open pollinated, however, as stated above, not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms. Heirlooms are plants that have been grown by ordinary gardeners for sometimes hundreds of years. Most times their origins are not clearly known. The Brandywine tomato was offered by Burpee in their catalog in 1886, however most feel that it was originally grown by the Amish in Pennsylvania even earlier. Many similar, pink-skinned, potato leafed tomatoes seemed to have their origins with immigrants from Germany and surrounding countries. Kentucky Wonder pole beans are another plant with foggy origins. First offered by James H. Gregory and Sons in 1877, it came to them known as Texas Pole and no one is sure how that name came about. A number of heirlooms like these have been accepted into commercial seed operations and there are a number of wonderful companies that have gathered hundreds of varieties to offer them to the public. However their roots (pun intended) were originally in family-saved seeds. Check with older relatives and church members to see if they are saving seeds. You might find something unique and special.

If you've never grown Brandywines, you're missing out. Here's a link to the seeds.

Kentucky Wonder pole beans are great as snap beans, or let them mature and use as dried beans as well

What are organic seeds?

Any of these seeds can be offered as organic. That simply means that the parent plants and the seeds harvested from them were grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. For the plants you grow to remain organic, you’ll need to do the same thing. Your soil can’t be amended with any chemicals and the plants themselves can’t have any chemical pesticides used on them. However, you can grow any hybrid, heirloom or open-pollinated seed organically. This results in a fruit or vegetable uncontaminated by chemicals and I like this because I can snack on whatever is in my garden, right from the vine. I don’t have to be concerned about pesticide residue when I take a bite out of a sun-warmed tomato or enjoy my peas or sweet peppers as I weed and cultivate. If you start seeds indoors, remember to purchase sterile, organic potting mix to give them the best start possible.

This sustainably sourced, organic fish emulsion fertilizer makes use of the fish parts that would normally go to waste.

Prepare now for spring planting

Whatever type of seeds that you choose, remember that the soil is the best place to start, to give them the best chance. I’ve always heard to dig a $10 hole for a $1 plant and found that it is wise advice. If you can turn your garden area over now and add amendments to the soil, you will have a huge advantage when it comes time to actually plant outside. Some people turn the soil over and cover it with cardboard to keep weeds from sprouting. The cardboard also breaks down over the next few months and helps enrich the soil. Check with collision shops in your area for large cardboard boxes. New parts such as bumpers and hoods come in large boxes that you can recycle into weed-blocking ground covers and are a sustainable way of helping dispose of potential landfill items, a win-win for the environment. Whatever seeds you choose, remember our fragile pollinator population and avoid pesticides. Let’s leave the world in at least as good a shape as we found it and hopefully we’ll leave it much better.

Here's organic, made in USA seed starting mix.

Don't use peat pots this year, instead, use these sustainable coconut coir pots for your seed starting needs.

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