Have you ever wondered what the differences are between heirloom, hybrid, organic and GMO seeds? What does it all mean? Find out here!
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I had no idea there was a difference in seeds when I started my garden a few years ago. I just grabbed some seeds from a nearby big box store. Who knew there was a difference in those seeds and any other seeds I might find from a catalog or another store? My thought was all seeds were equal. 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. Various information online states that to be considered heirloom, a plant variety has to be 50 or 100 years old or has 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 are 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 pollinated plants are pollinated by 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 for planting 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
Flavor and Nutrition
Heirloom varieties of vegetables tend to taste better. We are 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 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 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. The plants from their gardens had all the flavor they needed.
Heirloom seeds can be saved from year to year for planting or passing 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 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 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. Those seeds are not sold to gardeners. Generally, farmers will use GMO seeds for things like corn or soybeans. They are more expensive and are not sold in seed packets 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.
When you see seed packets and seed companies touting non-GMO seeds, just know that this is only for marketing purposes. They cannot sell you GMO seeds if they wanted to.
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. 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 grown with organic certification. Organic seeds may be hybrid or heirloom. Only certain organic products can be used while the plant grows to be considered organic. To be certified organic, plants must be grown from organic seed. There are different requirements for different organic certifications. The requirements for 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 of the biggest benefits of organic seeds is that they come from farms using organic practices.
Should you grow heirloom, organic or hybrid plants?
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.
Here are some of my tips for choosing seeds (Heirloom, Hybrid or Organic):
- Know your zone! Find your USDA Hardiness zone. You can use this information to see if the seeds you choose will grow within your zone. Find out how to read a seed packet here. Whether you choose heirloom, hybrid or organic seeds, they have to be the right seeds for where you live.
- Plant seeds that do well in your area. I personally get caught up in picking pretty or interesting seeds sometimes. Then I find out that they just don't do well for me. Sometimes it's best to go with the tried and true and use the experience of other gardeners to your advantage. I found a list of the best varieties for my area through my cooperative extension service. Check your extension service for this type of information as well as lots of other helpful gardening information.
- Check the reviews. I ALWAYS check reviews when I buy on Amazon. Doesn't it make sense to do the same for your seeds? Whether you are buying seeds from Amazon or any other seed company, see if they have reviews of the seeds. See if there are reviews from anyone in your area or growing zone. Do others have success with the seeds?
- Don't give up. If you try a certain variety of seeds and don't have luck, but you really want to grow that plant, don't give up. Try your seeds again or find a different variety. Check your seed germination rates if you think that could be a problem.
Now that you know the differences between heirloom, hybrid, organic and GMO seeds, it will be easier to figure out what seeds you want to buy. Happy seed starting!
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Shop for Heirloom, Hybrid and Organic Seeds
I like to buy heirloom seeds from Baker Creek Seeds here in Missouri. I find that they are high quality and they have a huge selection.
High Mowing Seeds has all organic, non-GMO seeds. They are supposed to be very high quality as well.
Territorial Seeds also has organic, high quality seeds.