Soon the seed catalogues are going to start appearing in our mailboxes. I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to dream away a cold afternoon than with a cup of tea and a seed catalogue.
Especially in the vegetable section, you’ll see seeds classified as open-pollinated, hybrid and heirloom. So, what exactly does this mean?
Open-pollinated seeds are from plants that reproduce without human involvement; they are pollinated naturally by the wind, bees, birds, or self-pollinate (some plants have both male and female parts). As long as the plants are separated from other varieties (but not necessarily species) these seeds will grow into plants that are “true to type” (which means like the parent plants), although there might be a little variability because of the sexual nature of seed production. The advantage of open-pollinated seeds is that you can save seeds and have them to plant from one season to the next.
Hybrid seeds are the result of cross-pollination between two types of similar plants. This can occur naturally, but is often the result of breeders cross-pollinating two varieties of plants to produce an “improved” plant (improved disease resistance, larger fruits/flowers, uniform size, etc.). This usually creates plants with more desirable traits, but you need to purchase seeds every season which can add to the cost of gardening. Often hybrid plants produce sterile seed, although some are viable but will not come true to type (although happy accidents have been known to occur).
All heirlooms seeds are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are heirloom. This sounds like a contradiction but it is more about the ancestry of the seed. To be considered an heirloom, the seed must have been in production for more than 50 years, although some organizations define heirlooms as “varieties that have been saved and shared by generations of home gardeners”. Typically gardeners save seeds from plants that exhibit desirability (delicious fruit, beautiful flowers, or resilience). This natural selection results in plants that are hardy and have evolved to local climatic conditions.
Organic seeds are becoming more available and even some herb growers (Blue Label) are offering plants grown form organic seed. Organic seeds are from plants that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, using organic principles like improving soil health, natural fertilizers and pest control. I would buy organic seed if only to ensure that I’m starting out with varieties that have the strongest natural pest and disease resistance and have been grown without chemicals.
But there is another reason to choose organic seeds. To harvest seeds, crops must stay in the field much longer that traditional food crops, in order for the seeds to mature. The longer a crop stays in the field, the higher the potential for pest and diseases, which requires the farmer to continually cull plants. The plants that make it to the end of the season means you’re getting seed from the healthiest, strongest plants; traits which will be passed on to the next generation of plants.
Of the 7,000 species of food plants, only 140 are cultivated commercially – and of those, most of the world’s food supply depends on just 12! Botanical explorers and ethnobotanists search the world for these rare and endangered food plants; many of which don’t even have names and can only be called landraces (plants with unique features found in only one region or sometimes just one village). They bring these seeds (sometimes just a handful, usually no more than 100) to growers before they are lost forever. If you have an interest in being a part of this plant preservation process, look for growers who specialize in rare seeds.
I have to address the elephant in the room. GMO seeds are created in a lab using sophisticated processes like gene splicing; often modifying the DNA of the plant. This is a controversial subject with many ethical implications, but I am heartened that recent research reports that many American farmers are abandoning them and growing non-GMO crops. It’s not because they are ideologically opposed to GMO’s, but in a business where margins are slim, it makes economic sense: GMO seeds cost more, they are paid more for non-GMO crops, and markets are limited because many Asian and European countries will not buy GMO crops.
Now that you know a little more about the types of seeds, you’ll be better prepared to choose what is best for you.
Oh, and it’s not too late to collect seed. Grab a handful of paper coin packets and a permanent marker and take a stroll around your garden to see if there are any seeds that you can snag before mid-November (the average frost date in our area). You can start your own seed bank, and if you share with a friend you'll both benefit. And remember, every seed collected stretches your budget so maybe you can purchase that exotic dahlia you’ve been lusting after!