After all that careful planning, it’s time to get some seeds.
For some, choosing seed means going to the grocery store, dollar store, or garden centre to pick up the first seed pack that matches what’s on their list. Hey, at least they’re growing something!
For others, selecting seed is like choosing a fine bottle of wine. They take care to pick the right one for them. They like to peruse various catalogs and shops. They carefully consider their soil, climate, sunlight, watering capabilities, taste preferences, the seed’s disease resistance, days to maturity and whether it’s heirloom, organic, hybrid or open-pollinated. Nothing seems to escape their scrutiny.
And then there are those of us in between. We like to experiment with different varieties, pay attention to optimal growing conditions, consider days to maturity and have a list of family favourites. We find the endless choices of tomatoes, cucumbers and beans overwhelming at times and are still trying to figure out the difference between heirloom, organic, hybrid and open-pollinated seeds.
While I can’t help you choose the right seed for you, here’s some info on the difference between heirloom, organic, hybrid, open-pollinated and GM seeds. I hope it helps in your seed selection process.
Heirloom or Heritage Seeds
- Those that have been in cultivation for at least 50 years and have been passed down from generation to generation.
- Usually open-pollinated seeds. They are not genetically modified or hybrid. Growers may protect blossoms from cross-pollination with physical barriers like row covers.
- Based on the principle of “survival of the fittest”, these seeds are often considered the hardiest and best for a particular region – as long as you buy regional heirloom seeds. For example, buy Manitoba or Saskatchewan heirloom seeds for best results here on the prairies because these are the seeds that have survived our conditions. Buying BC heirloom tomatoes wouldn’t be an ideal choice for Manitoba.
- Seeds are collected from plants that have desirable traits for colour, size, vigour, disease resistance and so on, leading proponents to say these plants will provide the best flavour and best colour.
- Give you the opportunity to save seeds for next year and to be part of a culture that believes in protecting seeds for our future.
- The shape and size of heirloom veggies may not meet grocery store standards (not necessarily a bad thing!).
- Labelled as “Heirloom” and may sell at a higher price point.
- Developed by controlled cross-pollination of different varieties to get specific qualities in the resulting plant – ie the kind of stuff Charles Darwin did. For example different varieties are pollinated for sweetness in corn, size uniformity in tomatoes, colour in flowers, disease resistance in peas, etc.
- Said to offer bigger yields, more uniform veggies, longer shelf life and greater disease resistance (at least for that disease it was bred to resist).
- Seed produced from these veggies may be sterile. If seeds do grow, the results will not be the same as the parent and will likely be sub-standard. Therefore, to get the same qualities year after year, you have to buy a new seed pack every year.
- Hybrid seeds gives those that bred them proprietary ownership – ie royalties.
- Typically labelled as “Hybrid” or “F1” .
- From plants that were pollinated freely by insects, birds, wind or other random, natural mechanisms with no regard for how, when or what pollen was mixed with what.
- Uncontrolled, open pollinating will produce new generations of those plants. Each generation will adapt slightly to the conditions facing them. This helps improve biodiversity and practices the principles of survival of the fittest.
- Seeds can be saved and will produce very similar results the following year.
- Seed packs not labelled as a Hybrid, F1 are likely open-pollinated. Heirloom seeds are typically open-pollinated.
- If you are planning on saving seed, open-pollinated seeds are a good bet. However, be aware of the potential of cross-pollination for vegetables such as corn, cucumbers, and squash. If different varieties are planted too closely together, they will cross-pollinate and next year’s crop will be different than the parent plant.
- Certified organic seeds are those that come from plants (either hybrid, heirloom or open-pollinated plants) that were grown according to organic standards. In other words, there are no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides used in their production.
- All the pros and cons of heirloom, hybrid or open-pollinated seeds grown in the most natural way possible.
- Yes, it is possible to have organic, hybrid seed.
GM (Genetically Modified) Seeds
- Developed using highly complex technology, such as gene splicing. GM varieties can include genes from several species — a phenomenon that almost never occurs in nature.
- There is much controversy and concern about GM technology, its rapid growth and the lack of research into the long term consequences and safety of using this technology.
- At this time, there are very few, if any, vegetable garden seeds on the market that are GM. Although, there are some seed companies that are owned by companies that make GM seed for large scale growers.
- There are currently no rules about labeling food or vegetable seeds as genetically modified. To ensure your seeds (especially in the next few years) are not GM seeds, buy your seeds from retailers that are committed to heirloom or open-pollinated or organic seeds.
Selecting seeds can be overwhelming, but it’s important to remember that growing your own veggies – whatever seed you choose and wherever you get that seed from – is better than not growing your own veggies!