SEEDS EXPLAINED: Heirloom, Hybrid, Organic, and GMO Seeds

Heirloom, organic, non-GMO, hybrid, open pollinated. What does this all mean? And is there a best type of seed to grow in your garden. This is hands down the question that I get the most when it comes to starting seeds, selecting seeds. And also it’s the section of gardening I think where there’s a lot of misinformation. I’m going to go over each category of seed. What it actually means, if it’s safe, if it’s not safe and hopefully give you a little better understanding of what you’re actually buying.

The first thing we need to talk about is the big bad boogeyman of the gardening world, which would be a GMO seed.

But what does it mean? First of all, GMO – genetic modified organisms, sometimes called genetically engineered. And I’m going to cut right to the chase for you. You really can’t even grow these as a home gardener. They’re not available to you. You can’t really buy them. And whenever you see a seed pack that says non-GMO, it is TRUE that those seeds that you’re buying are not genetically modified, but at the same time, every seed that you’re buying is not genetically modified in the way that GMO seeds are. And what do I mean by that? Typically what you’re dealing with there is when you’re taking genetics from one species, sometimes even animal, and implanting it and splicing it into the genetic sequence of the plant that we’re talking about. So let’s take corn for example. Bt corn is a very, very popular GMO seed. And we know from our organic gardening practices that Bt, bacillus thuringiensis, is a popular organic control. They’ve taken genetics from that bacteria and put it into corn. So that is what we call a GMO seed. When you’re taking genetics from one species and putting it into another. So when you see at a store that these seeds are non-GMO, you basically aren’t being told anything of value because every seed you’re buying is non-GMO, in the sense that none of those seeds have genetics that have been spliced in from other species.

Next up, we have the often confusing hybrid seed sometimes called an F1 hybrid.

The reason why people think hybrid seeds are not safe or not good to grow, is slightly related and slightly different than a GMO. So what is a hybrid? Let’s just say I have my cabbage variety over here that resists pests really well. It’s an heirloom variety. And then I have another cabbage over here that has incredible vigor and it grows really fast and it’s just amazingly delicious. And I let them go to seed and I actually cross the seeds, what do I have? I have a cross pollinated plant and the resulting seeds will be a hybrid of those two parent plants. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about a hybrid. Now, what does F1 mean? That simply means the generation of hybridization. So F1 would be the first generation. Now, the reason why a lot of gardeners prefer NOT to grow hybrid seeds is because more or less, you’re beholden to a seed company when you buy a hybrid seed. Because you cannot save the seeds from those plants and have them come what we call, true to type. And so whatever you grew, let’s say you grew a beautiful tomato F1 hybrid plant, right? And you loved it. You save those seeds, you plant those seeds. You’re not going to get the same plant because they have a tendency to revert back to the qualities of their parents until they get more stable. So you’ll see F2, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. The further down you go in the lineage, the more stable those plants become until eventually they will become their own stable variety. Now that’s just a completely different thing that gets into plant genetics. That’s actually a little bit out of my expertise. But I do want to explain that there’s nothing inherently bad about a hybrid seed from a safety perspective or anything like that. And in fact, some varieties that I grow are fantastic as hybrids. Because a lot of the times what they’ll do is they’ll cross beautiful heirloom varieties and improve upon those varieties while retaining all the qualities that those varieties are known for. And so let’s say you have a beautiful tomato, the color and flavor is amazing, and you cross it with something that adds more disease or pest resistance while not deleting the flavor, the color, the vigor, or et cetera. Then that’s just simply a better variety. Now, the difference there is that you’re going to have to pay that seed company every single year for that variety. You can’t save the seeds. So you lose a little bit of your autonomy there.

Next up we have organic seeds or conventional seeds.

What does that actually mean?You really have to separate the word organic as a certification, that goes through a specific process versus the conventional way of growing, and the actual meaning of the word organic. So from a scientific perspective, organic means something that was once alive, right? Organic matter. From the perspective of the certification, you really have a quite long checklist of things you can and cannot do in order to be called an organic seed. Like you cannot use synthetic chemicals to grow your plants, to prevent pests, to prevent diseases. You have to use organic ones or natural ones. Now there IS a false dichotomy, and I really want to speak to this, of organic versus synthetic. Some things that are organic or natural are actually not good for you. Arsenic would be a great example. You don’t want to eat that. Whereas things that have been made by man, synthesized, can be fantastic for society in some cases. There is no one’s good, one’s the other. It is a false dichotomy. And in fact, the conventional industry and the organic industry are sort of in league with each other, kind of bouncing each other off as the good and bad guy. Because it perpetuates this sort of false war between the two, where you really have to think for yourself. So, am I saying that organic seeds are bad? No, in fact I prefer to grow organic seeds and it’s for these reasons. Number one, a lot of the organic seed companies are smaller local seed companies. Number two, the less that you are protecting or providing a shield to your plant with herbicides and pesticides when you’re growing the plant for seed, the hardier those resulting seeds will be. Because the ones that would have died from the pest or diseases, didn’t make it to seed, right? So you’re sort of left with the survival of the fittest, a true sort of evolutionary selection going on, where the organic seeds oftentimes can be quite resistant to things that a more conventionally or babied plant would not be. And of course, these are broad generalities I’m speaking in as sort of these big concepts. And I’m sure that like a plant geneticist or a seedsman or seedswoman would have something a little bit more particular and technical to say about what I’m saying. However, I do think this is a good general understanding.

Now, let’s move on to our favorite type of seed as gardeners – the big kahuna

The Holy Grail for gardeners. Heirloom seeds. What are they? They’re sort of a confusing thing because there’s not a true definition for what heirloom means in a dictionary, right? People have different definitions for it. Basically, heirloom seeds are extremely old seeds. Some people say it can’t be heirloom if it originated after the advent of plant hybridization. If, some people – maybe the more purists – would say that if anything came out after we really started hybridizing plants and combining them and cross-pollinating, it really can’t be considered an heirloom. It has to be older than that. Some people say it has to be a hundred years old. But the idea here is these are plants that WILL come true to type. If you save their seed, you’re going to get the exact same plant. Not the exact genetic same, but you’re going to get the same characteristics from that plant that you would expect to get. Unlike hybrid seeds, where when you plant that seed that you saved, it’s not even going to come true to type. You may have not even close to the same plant. People like heirloom seeds for a couple reasons. Number one, the varieties are absolutely insane. You can get some really beautiful tomatoes, some beautiful cucumbers. Any plant under the sun that has an heirloom selection, you’re going to get great colors, you’re going to get great flavors, great growing characteristics. And they’re just really fun and enjoyable to grow. The other thing is you get a little bit more autonomy, a little bit more self-sufficiency.

If you can save the seed then you aren’t beholden to a third party, another entity, to buy that seed. So you save money in the long-term if you’re willing to go through the process of growing plants out and actually saving them for seed. And then third, a lot of these heirloom varieties are adapted to a specific region.

You’re going to have a bunch of heirlooms that work well in your area. And you can actually find which ones will work well just by calling up a master gardener in your area or hitting up a local nursery and asking the person who’s just an heirloom fanatic. So heirloom seeds, one of the things that we love here growing as gardeners. Now, there are some potential downsides. A lot of these heirloom seeds have not been improved much because they’re not being selected for, they’re not actually being actively improved on as far as their genetic traits. And that’s where a lot of the people who are on more of a “hybrids are fantastic and I love growing hybrids thing” are really sort of pushing against the heirlooms. A lot of people will say, okay, well a hybrid is just everything that an heirloom is except for blank. Except for better pest resistance, except for downy mildew resistance. And to some degree that can be true. There are some hybrids out there that I absolutely love to grow and they’re absolutely fantastic, but in spirit of a more truly natural way of gardening, I absolutely love growing heirlooms myself. And I’m sure that you do too.

So I really hope that this breakdown gave you a better understanding. I know I kind of got into the weeds there a little bit, but it is a confusing topic. It’s one that misleads a lot of people and I would like it not to, especially as we go into this incredible 2021 growing season.

Good luck in the garden and. Keep on growing. Happy Gardening!

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