Do you find the terms associated with seeds a little confusing? What do open pollinated, hybrid, heirloom and organic mean and why do you care?
First let me start by saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any seed choice you make. But you might find you have a few preferences if you understand what these terms mean.
Open-pollinated means that the seeds were pollinated naturally. Insects, wind, birds, and even human hands can all help to pollinate plants naturally. So long as pollination occurs between plants of the same variety, the seeds that result from open pollinated plants will produce offspring that is like the parent (i.e. the plant remains true-to-type). Open pollination allows for genetic diversity because of natural mutations, adaptation and natural selection that occurs with time but open pollinated plants are stable and good for growers who want to collect seeds and encourage a natural process of seed and plant adaptation.
Heirloom seeds are, by definition, open pollinated. The term ‘heirloom’ refers to the fact that a plant has a known history. It was passed down across generations, in communities or families. Heirlooms have a story and a sense of history – the term is romantic and not scientific.
Hybridization means that the seed was created by crossing two different species of plant. This can happen naturally – but for commercial purposes, it is generally the result of humans purposely breeding plants for particular desirable traits. Hybridized seeds tend to grow better and have higher yields because they were bred to have these characteristics.
So what is wrong with hybrids? NOTHING – but if you want to collect seeds and replant the next year (without having to go back to the supplier and re-buy the seeds) you will not be successful. The seeds that you collect from hybrids will not breed true-to-type. The second generation plants from hybrids will not have the same traits as their parent, nor will they have the same vigor. Hybridized characteristics can however stabilize in a plant population over time if there is a concerted effort to consistently select and cross plants over many generations (of the plant). If a forced natural selection system is set up (which is what breeders do) then hybridized traits can normalize and become common in a plant population. But this takes time (years) and is the result of a lot of work and consistent selection.
I plant both open pollinated heirlooms and hybrids. Hybrids are fantastic for gardeners who are purely results oriented as the traits that are typically selected in hybrid varieties tend to guard against disease and pests and improve yield, but this isn’t the only reason to garden and grow your own. It is rare to hear of a hybrid that has been selected for enhanced flavor or nuance in taste, nutrition, or culinary usage. It isn’t that breeders can’t select and breed for these traits – it is just that they don’t (not to be cynical – but there isn’t as much money in it). These traits are found in the more diverse world of open pollinated plants. Open pollinated plants will regionalize and give character to the local food and products that they produce. Over generations they will adapt to the soil and conditions that they grow in and will evolve a certain terroir. Local character, uniqueness and individuality, and tradition are things that I value and cherish – not just in seeds but in people and culture. Seeds are history and their stories and diversity are a strength that will provide the keys to allow civilization adapt and live in an ever-changing climate. Making sure that this diversity persists is why I’ve put together this downloadable guide to open pollinated seed suppliers. There are millions of things you can grow and experiment with in the selections that these businesses offer – I hope you have fun exploring them all!
P.S. The ‘organic’ label refers to how something is grown (as opposed to how it is bred) and it means that the product has met the strict guidelines set forth by the USDA to qualify as organic. Non organic food is not necessarily bad – but it does mean that you don’t know something about how the product was grown. It could have been treated with pesticides or other things whose residues you don’t want to ingest, it could have been grown in contaminated soil, or maybe the growers used methods that hurt the wider ecosystem in some way. It is impossible to know. I garden (mostly) organically, so I try to buy organic seeds because then I know that the people who are selling to me have been certified to have similar standards for land care that I do.