When I first started my garden a few years ago, I picked up seeds from the nearest big box store without even realizing that there could be any difference in those seeds and any other seeds I might find from a catalog or another store. I thought seeds were seeds. I knew there were different varieties of vegetables and flowers, but I thought that was as far as it went.
What I had yet to learn was that there are several types of seeds, including hybrid, heirloom, organic, and GMO. There are some differences among these seeds, and as you will see, there are benefits and drawbacks to each. As all gardeners have different goals, you may decide that certain traits or characteristics of each type of seed may or may not be important for you.
In trying to find a true definition of what an heirloom seed is, you will find that there are many definitions that are somewhat similar but no true consensus on what characterizes an heirloom variety. I found various information online stating that to be considered heirloom, a plant variety would have to be 50 or 100 years old or would have to be grown before 1951 or before World War II. So, setting aside specific dates, I think we can make a safe assumption that an heirloom is a variety of plant that has been around for a “long time.” It would be something that our parents or grandparents would have grown in their gardens.
All heirlooms must be open-pollinated or self-pollinated. Open-pollinated just means that the plant naturally pollinates. If you don’t want any cross-pollination to occur, it is helpful to plant different varieties of plants far enough away from each other that you don’t end up with a hybrid plant if you save the seeds. Open pollinating plants can be pollinated from the wind or insects. Self-pollinating plants have both the female and male reproductive parts, so they can pollinate within the same plant. If open-pollinated and self-pollinated seeds are saved to be planted the next year, your plants will be the same as their parent plants, meaning you will know that the seeds you plant will be exactly the same as the prior year.
Benefits of Heirloom Seeds
Heirloom varieties of vegetables tend to taste better. We have become used to buying fruits and vegetables at the grocery store that were harvested weeks or even months before we put them in our shopping cart. It’s great to be able to leave them in your fridge for a week if you forget to use them right away. Along with the long shelf life comes the lack of flavor. Hybridized vegetables usually have been made to have characteristics to make them produce more or last longer. We generally don’t hybridize for better taste.
Heirlooms are also more nutritious. For the very same reasons heirlooms are tastier, they also tend to be more nutritious. Again, hybridization is usually happening to make more vegetables available for a lower cost. Those varieties are not always going to have as high of a nutritional value as an heirloom variety.
If you have grandparents or great-grandparents that have gardened, most of the plants and seeds they remember will be heirloom varieties. There is something to be said for growing something in your garden that has a long history. Eating food is not just for fueling our bodies. There is also a satisfaction component. When we eat something that really tastes good naturally, it feeds our soul as well as our body. Our ancestors were aware of this and knew what “real” food tasted like. They didn’t have to use as much seasoning in their cooking because the plants from their gardens had all the flavor they needed.
Heirloom seeds can be saved from year to year to be planted or passed on. They will grow true to their parent plant and will not surprise you with any unfamiliar characteristics. They don’t always ripen at the same rate which can be good for us home gardeners who don’t want to can hundreds of tomatoes all at once!
If you do end up with too many tomatoes, take a look at this post to get some ideas on how to use them. And if you have a lot of green beans, keep in mind they freeze well. Learn how to freeze them here.
Hybrid seeds are those that are from plants that have been cross-pollinated. Plants are cross-pollinated to take valuable characteristics from each parent plant to make a stronger, more productive plant. You may see or hear about “F1” hybrid seeds. This just refers to the seeds coming from 2 parents or pure lines. The F1 hybrid is the first descendant of the two parent plants. Hybrid seeds that are saved from one year to the next and planted in your garden will not have the same characteristics as the plant they came from. The new plants may have more characteristics from either of the parents and generally will not be as vigorous in the next growing season. If using hybrid seeds, it is best to buy new seeds each year instead of trying to start seeds that you have saved off your plants.
Benefits of Hybrid Seeds
Hybrid varieties may be more predictable than heirloom varieties. They may produce a higher yield and may be hardier. They may also be more drought and insect resistant. You can find varieties that will work well in your specific area based on your climate and soil. The beauty of the hybrid is that you can pick what characteristics are important to you to make your job easier.
“A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods”
There are only a few approved GMO crops in the US, and those seeds are not being sold to gardeners. Generally, farmers will use GMO seeds for things like corn or soybeans. They are more expensive to buy and are not sold in seed packets that you find in a seed catalog or at the nursery. GMO is not something we have to worry about as far as gardening goes. There would be no benefit to using GMO seeds as a home gardener.
Doing some research on GMO versus non-GMO may be beneficial if you are looking to live a cleaner, healthier lifestyle. I try to make sure that my food as well as the food I feed my animals is non-GMO when possible. It just seems that there may be some disadvantages to GMOs that we may not even be fully aware of at this point. The good news is, if we grow our own food, we don’t have to worry about that quite as much and can have more control over what we put into our bodies.
Organic seeds must meet the same criteria as organic foods. They must come from plants that were grown with organic certification. Organic seeds may be hybrid or heirloom. Only certain organic products can be used while the plant is growing to be able to be considered organic. To be certified organic, plants must be grown from organic seed. There are different organic certifications that can be obtained, all with different requirements. The requirements to gain organic certification are extensive and strict.
Benefits of Organic Seeds
Organic seeds may grow better than conventional seeds because they are taken from plants that had to withstand conditions where no standard chemicals were used to help them survive. They are thought to be stronger and hardier because of this. One thing to note is that you can still grow organic plants with seeds that are not organic. There may be traces of pesticides in the seed, but once the plant is grown, it becomes miniscule. One of the biggest benefits of organic seeds is that they come from farms that are using organic practices.
So, What Should you Grow?
Good question. There is no right or wrong answer. It all depends on what you are looking for in a plant and what is important to you. It is easy to get sucked into the research rabbit hole online when trying to figure out what the right direction is for you. As I’m learning, sometimes it takes some experimentation. Maybe try a few things out and see what works for you. There are so many choices, but don’t get bogged down. Happy seed starting!