As I sit here writing this, I am looking at no less than seven different seed catalogs that have come in the mail during the month of December. For me, January is seed purchasing time. Sometimes the terminology that describes seed can be confusing to a new gardener, especially one lacking a Bachelor of Science degree. Here are some simple definitions for common terms used in most catalogs to describe the breeding of the seed or its heritage. This can be of importance when choosing seed best suited to your needs.
Heirloom Seed- This refers to an old or traditional variety that is still grown in gardens today. Oftentimes it is a variety not suited for large scale commercial production and is seed that is kept from year to year and passed on from person to person. Heirloom seeds are open pollinated; see next definition!
Open Pollinated- These are seeds that are pollinated (fertilized) via wind, birds, insects or other natural means. It is an uncontrolled form of breeding that often gives rise to genetic variation seen in the offspring. For example, perhaps 99% of the offspring of an open pollinated broccoli variety will have green leaves similar to their parents, but 1% will show a purple color tint not seen in the parent generation. Open pollination tends to increase biodiversity and is a great way to watch plants adapt to their environment, especially if you start to save seed from year to year. However, a gardener should not expect all plants of an open pollinated variety to look exactly alike (or even taste alike!).
F1 Hybrid- This seed is relatively consistent and true to form with little variation between individuals. F1 Hybrids are created using traditional, controlled breeding techniques where parents with known, desired traits are carefully crossed with each other, often via hand-pollination by humans, to create offspring (seed) that show the same traits as the parents. F1 Hybrids, unless otherwise labeled, are not Genetically Modified Crops.
Certified Organic-This is seed that has been raised under conditions consistent with organic practices and is grown without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. Certified Organic seed can be Heirlooms, Open Pollinated or F1 Hybrids and cannot contain genetically modified material to receive certification. Certified Organic has a distinct legal meaning and can only be used for seed growers who are in compliance with the rules set aside by the USDA’s National Organic Program.
Happy Seed Shopping!