Garden seeds can be confusing – there are GE (genetically engineered), GMO (genetically modified organism), and Heirloom (old varieties) seed varieties available as well as open-pollinated (OP), hybrid, organic, pelleted, and treated seed.
I can remember when you went to your local feed & seed supply store to buy garden seeds; and your choices were limited to a few – how things have changed!
Today, there are numerous seed catalogs available with hundreds of offerings, and you can also order from thousands of varieties online – but the choices can be confusing.
What’s the difference between GE, GMO, OP, Heirloom, Hybrid, Organic, Pelleted, and Treated garden seeds? Here’s the explanation:
Open-pollinated seeds are those that are produced by pollination from wind, insects, or self-pollination.
You can save seeds from open-pollinated varieties and use them from year to year because they will produce plants that are essentially the same as the plants from which the seed was harvested.
The open-pollinated seed is usually less expensive than other seed types because no hybridization work has been done.
When saving seed from open-pollinated varieties; however, (for those garden varieties that are wind or insect-pollinated – like squash, cucumbers, melons, etc.), it’s important to grow different varieties of the same vegetable separated by recommended distances.
That’s so that an unintentional “cross” or hybrid variety isn’t produced. Or, just grow one variety of these vegetables each year and save the seed.
Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that have evolved over time through gardeners’ selection process rather than by intentional hybridization.
Some folks use 50 years (a variety needs to be at least that old) as the age that defines an heirloom while others define it as varieties developed prior to the 1940s.
In the past, heirlooms were passed from generation to generation – but today can be purchased from commercial seed sources.
Popular examples of heirloom seed varieties include Brandywine tomatoes, Lemon cucumbers, and Kentucky Wonder pole beans.
Since heirlooms are just “old” open-pollinated varieties, seeds can be saved from year to year and they’re also usually less expensive than hybrid or other seed types.
A hybrid (also known or described as F1) occurs when a breeder selects two open-pollinated types and cross-pollinates them to obtain the best traits from the parents.
Breeders typically hybridize to improve disease resistance, earliness, etc. Hybrid seed is usually more expensive than open-pollinated or heirloom seed because of the work involved in producing the seeds.
Seeds generally aren’t saved from hybrid varieties because they won’t produce plants with the same characteristics as the parents. Examples of hybrid varieties include Better Boy and Early Girl tomatoes or Sugar Ann snap peas.
GMO (Genetically Modified Organism)
There’s lots of hype in the news about seeds of this type, but the USDA defines it as any type of organism produced through the use of genetic modification.
This means that whether produced by high-tech genetic engineering or by traditional plant breeding methods, the seeds are considered GMO.
Plant breeders that select for traits like uniformity or disease resistance from open-pollinated varieties to obtain a hybrid cross are genetically modifying the organisms. Examples of GMO breeding include all the hybrids and higher-tech crosses like pluots.
GE (Genetically Engineered)
Although GMO and GE are often used interchangeably by the media, it’s the GE crops that are generally the real source of debate. Only through human manipulation can plants that are not sexually compatible be combined.
Genetic engineering is the high-tech method of inserting genes directly into an organism to produce plants that could not be produced by nature. Example of GE seed includes Bt-corn and Roundup Ready corn, soybeans, cotton, and alfalfa.
The Safe Seed Pledge arose after the introduction of the first GE seed, and companies signing have pledged not to buy or sell genetically engineered seed. The Council for Responsible Genetics (you can find out more about them HERE) maintains a list of companies that have signed the pledge and most companies that have signed the pledge will specify that in their seed catalog.
The words “Certified Organic” on a seed packet mean that the seeds have been grown in compliance with all the rules and regulations specified by the USDA’s National Organic Program.
This means that the land the seed was grown on cannot have had prohibited substances applied for three years prior, and that the farm must be managed in accordance with a plan that is approved and inspected by a USDA certifier.
Under the plan, organic growers cannot use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and sewage sludge, irradiation, genetic engineering, and treating seeds with fungicides are prohibited.
These seeds are enclosed in an inert material to form a pellet; and the technique is usually used on very small seeds (like lettuce, carrots, etc.) to make them easier to handle. Pelleted seed is also sometimes “primed”, meaning the seed has been processed to be just ready to germinate.
Primed seed germinates very quickly and should be used in the year it’s purchased because the priming process generally decreases storage life.
Treated seeds are usually coated with a fungicide to protect seed from pathogens when germinating in wet or cold soils. If you’re considering a seed that’s labeled as treated, it’s best to check the packaging for specific details about what’s been used.
With an understanding of what GMO, GE, Heirloom, and the rest all mean for garden seeds, you can make intelligent choices. We prefer to use open-pollinated or heirloom seeds in our garden, and if we can find organic varieties of those it’s even better. For a few vegetable varieties, we do use hybrids, but I’m always trialing new open-pollinated and heirloom varieties to replace those.
We avoid GE, pelleted, and treated seed; and try to buy from companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge. It seems to us that it’s important to maintain diversity and promote the use of open-pollinated seeds and sources; rather than rely on a few giant seed companies and their GE seeds. You can find a listing garden seed links at Free Garden Seed Catalog Links