I have a secret. I’m a seed-aholic. Or maybe a seed hoarder. Or a compulsive gardener. Or all three. Either way, I’m doomed to buy more seeds than I can plant and doomed to plant more than I can manage. It happens Every. Single. Year. For over 20 years now. And every year I get overwhelmed and boldly proclaim “Next year I’m not growing a garden!” Cue the entire family rolling their eyes. They know I’m bluffing, even when I don’t.
But our crazy spring like weather the last few days is taunting me, lulling me into forgetfulness of each year’s misadventures. And of course my mailman isn’t helping my addiction as he keeps insisting on filling my mailbox with loads of seed catalogs every week for the past month. And it’s only January!!! No matter, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my fix each day and dutifully drooling over every single seed variety I see.
Unfortunately, deciphering the various labels—and knowing what each label means for the garden—can be a little frustrating. After all, what is the difference between open-pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid varieties? And exactly what is GMO? The answers provide insight into how each one will affect the garden. So, I thought it might be helpful to send out a little guide to get you started as you drool over your own seed catalogs;)
Open-pollinated (OP) and heirloom labels are perhaps the easiest to interpret. Simply put, both labels on a seed packet indicate the seeds were produced via the natural process of open pollination using insects, wind, animals, or even self-pollination between two parent plants of the same variety. Future seeds from the plants grown from the original seeds will produce true-to-type with only minor variances provided pollination continues to occur only between plants of the same variety. At times OP/Heirlooms will cross-pollinate with other varieties, thus creating a hybrid that may or may not flourish and is something to educate yourself on if you intend to save your seeds. Seeds saved and replanted over the course of several seasons often produce offspring with increased resistance to local pests and disease as well as an increased tolerance to local weather extremes. The only significant difference between heirloom and OP varieties is that heirlooms boast the added prestige of a history of being passed down to future generations through the decades.
Regardless of an OP’s history, however, superior flavor, local adaptability and the ability to save seeds from one season to the next are the primary reasons many choose open-pollinated varieties over others. However, yields are often lower, fruits are nonuniform, and disease resistance may—or may not—be a bit lower than hybrid counterparts.
Hybrid labels, on the other hand, indicate that a specific variety was created through a breeder’s intentional cross-pollination of two distinctly different varieties within the same species. The intent is to create a cross between the two parents with the offspring expressing specific traits from each parent such as disease resistance, high yields, firm fruit, and uniform appearance. Many claim this hybridization is at the cost of old-fashioned flavor while others tend to prefer the typically milder flavor common in hybrids. Seeds from hybrids, however, will not reproduce true-to-type, resulting in the need to purchase new seed each season.
GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) labels are the least common label a gardener will encounter. However, with each passing season that is changing. In a nutshell, GMO varieties are produced by splicing segments of one organism’s DNA into the DNA of another, completely different type of organism via genetic engineering. This controversial process cannot be accomplished in nature and is often the result of combining DNA from two different species, such as corn DNA with DNA from bacteria, with the purpose of creating a variety that is able to withstand disease, pests, or herbicides. This seed is patented, making it illegal to replant any seed your plants may produce. Many seed companies refuse to offer GMO seed, while others offer it freely. So if this is a concern, check with your chosen supplier before making a purchase.
Over time, you’ll figure out which types of seeds you prefer. There’s the purists, who only plant heirlooms and OPs. Then there’s the “I want the most bang for my buck” which chooses only the hybrids to ensure the hardiest varieties with the largest harvest. Or, you may find you enjoy the middle ground like me, incorporating a “little of this’ and a ‘little of that.’ On our little piece of land, I’ve found I prefer the OPs and heirlooms over the hybrids for flavor, yet I always make certain I include hybrids whenever I can to ensure I have adequate produce regardless of what the weather or natural pests may do that season. This practice has saved my tomato harvests during years of drought and heavy hornworm loads. Other years, when everything is more in balance, I manage to have extra large harvests that allow me to put up extra for the winter. And because we do everything here with only all natural methods, there’s no room for GMO products here. This is what works for us.
However, regardless of which types of seeds you prefer, remember to experiment and enjoy the journey. After all, there’s always the next season if your garden didn’t turn out quite like you’d hoped.
Here’s to learning as you go and enjoying the journey!