It’s January. That means I’m knee-deep in seed catalogs and my dreams consist of vibrant carrots and oddly shaped squash, the many variations of basil and the habitat for beneficial insects in full bloom. There are so many options, and it can seem overwhelming, especially when space is limited. Not only are there thousands of varieties of fruits and vegetables, but they come with different titles: Organic, Hybrid, Open-Pollinated. What does that jargon mean to the average gardener or farmer?
Hybrid, Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, Organic, and what about GMOs?
1) A hybrid is “the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties, such as a mule (a hybrid of a donkey and a horse).” There’s nothing inherently wrong with hybrids; humans have been intentionally cross-breeding different plant varieties for thousands of years. However, when humans do the breeding, we aren’t indiscriminate. We select certain traits that we want to see in our produce, and create hybrids to achieve that. In that process, we sometimes lose other desirable traits. We have bred disease-resistant tomatoes, bright orange, long, straight carrots, and giant, tender radishes. Because hybrids are offspring of more than one variety, the seed collected from hybrids will not produce “true to type”. This means if you tried to save seed from a hybrid and plant it the next year, a wide range of traits from the parents emerge. If you saved seed from a hybrid yellow squash with a green tip, you may get some yellow squash, some green squash, some speckled squash, etc.
2) Sometimes, hybrids are just what I’m looking for; but more often I want that variety of collards my Grandma Polly has always grown, or that Cushaw Squash that I learned makes the best ‘pumpkin’ pie I’ll ever eat. These are seeds that have been saved for generations through open-pollination. Open-pollination occurs when plants breed via wind, insects, or self without interference of humans. Open-pollinated varieties are mostly stable, so you can save seed, plant it the next year, and expect to get the same size, color, and flavor of fruit. Open-pollinated seeds are great for a farmer or gardener working to tighten their budget, because you can buy the seeds once and save them forever.
3) The old varieties of collards and squash I mentioned above are known as heirlooms. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. There’s no standard definition, but heirlooms are generally considered to be from seed varieties that have been around since the early 1900s. Some understand heirlooms to be plants that were once prolifically grown, but are now in danger of becoming extinct as we have moved to a more narrow selection in our grocery stores, restaurant menus, and even gardens. Heirlooms are often celebrated regionally, and I see growing heirlooms as a way to actively and tangibly celebrate our history.
Slow Food’s Ark of Taste is a great place to find endangered heirloom varieties:
4) When you purchase Organic seed, you are paying for certification that the plant that produced the seed was grown according to certain principles that protect our water, preserve our soil, and conserve healthy ecosystems. Farmers seeking organic certification must use organic seed. Organic seed can be from hybrid, open-pollinated, or heirloom plants. However, organic certification may not apply to genetically modified plants. In our country, organic certification is the only organization that reliably certifies that plants are not genetically modified.
5) “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”(WHO) Genetic modification is hybridization of an entirely different beast (Get it? cross-species. HA). As with hybridization, breeders are selecting for certain traits and combining genetic material to get the desired results. However, genetic engineering “allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.”
Mr. Anthony Flaccavento explains the differences in this short “Take 5 With Tony” video:
Understanding these terms is only the first step in picking the best varieties for your garden or farm. From here, you may want to consider flavor, color, storage, history, your zone, soil type, sun exposure, and preservation opportunities. But, you may just want to consider what you like to eat. Most importantly, don’t get bogged down by the weight of the choices. Start small and always remember, no matter the variety, the plants just want to grow. They do most of the work; it’s just your job to help them along. So pull out those catalogs, place the orders, and have those seeds ready to go in the ground before you get swept up in the bustle of summer.
There are several seed companies in our area doing great work. Here’s a good place to start your seed search:
Sources and Resources