Whether you grow plants from seed or also want to save seeds from your plants, terms like heirloom, hybrid, and open-pollinated are helpful to understand. This simple guide explains the differences so you know what to expect.
If you are new to gardening, it’s also helpful to know the difference between annual and perennial plants and what this means for your garden.
Basic Seed Guide
Most of the seeds gardeners buy are flowering annuals and annual seeds for growing a vegetable garden.
Perennial seeds are not as popular but an excellent way to inexpensively fill a larger garden over time.
There is also an increased demand for native plant seeds as more gardeners realize how important our plant choices are to local eco-systems.
No matter what the seed type, there are various terms that appear on seed packets and, along with the growing instructions, provide valuable information.
In addition to the annual or perennial category, the seed may also be open-pollinated, heirloom, hybrid, or not designated.
What you want will depend on what you’re growing it for and whether you hope to save seeds for future sowing.
Plus, any type of seed you choose may be organically-grown or not. Most are not. This is something to look for if you want to support certified organic growing practices.
The whole topic of plant pollination and potential worries about cross-pollination can be overwhelming or worrisome for new gardeners, particularly if you’re growing vegetables.
If you’ve been intimidated by things like this, my advice is to go for it anyways. Grow what you want to grow.
Read your seed packets, follow the instructions, and learn more on garden topics that interest you. Gardening is too important for our well-being to let fears of cross-pollinated pumpkins or some other curiosity get in our way.
- Types of Garden Seeds
- Agricultural Seeds
Types Of Garden Seeds
This first category is about how the seeds are grown, not the type of seed.
“Organic” on seed packets indicates the seed producer is legally certified as an organic grower.
“Organic” can mean of lot of different things in gardening, but, in this case, labelling seeds as organic is legally regulated, telling you something about the seed growing conditions.
The word “organic” when used by home gardeners can have numerous and sometimes contradictory meanings.
No matter where you live in the world, there’s almost certainly a certification process required before seeds—or any food products—can be sold as organic.
This certification process relates to, among other things, what kind of pesticides, fertilizers, and other soil amendments can be used. For example, most synthetic fertilizers are not permitted for certified organic growing.
If this is important to you, buying organic seeds is a way to show your support for organic growing methods and organic growers.
The seeds usually cost a bit more but, for those of us who support these practices, it’s about the environmental impact of the seed-growing process, not just the seeds themselves.
You can, of course, grow plants from both organic and non-organic seeds in your garden, and you can choose whether you grow them organically or not.
The words “organic” or “organically-grown” on the seed packet simply indicate that the producer has been through the organic certification process.
Examples of Organically-grown Seeds
These ones are available at Botanical Interests
- Apple Blossom Swiss Chard Blend Baby Greens Seeds (Organic, Heirloom)
- Belstar Broccoli Seeds (Organic)
- Evening Sun Sunflower Seeds (Organic, Heirloom)
Look for organic or organically-grown or something referring to organic certification on the seed packet.
Open-pollinated (OP) seeds come from parent plants of the same variety and will breed true to type.
Open-pollinated (OP) seeds are ones where the two parent plants are both from the same variety and the seeds will produce plants like the parents—not identical, but the same variety with similar traits.
Whether you have self-pollinating plants or a whole field of the same variety of plants, when pollination occurs within the same variety—via insects or wind or whatever—their seeds will be “true to type” and produce plants of that variety.
When you save OP seeds, you know what you’re going to get: another plant similar to the parents.
Open-pollinated seeds may be organically-grown (or not), self-pollinating (or not), and heirloom seeds (or not).
When seed shopping, look for OP or open-pollinated or heirloom on the seed packet.
Hybrids occur when different varieties of the same plant species reproduce. This can happen naturally or with our help.
Seeds from plants grown from hybrid seeds will not grow true to type.
Hybrids are not genetically-modified (GMOs).
When a plant is pollinated by a different variety of the same species, you get a hybrid. The seeds produced are hybrid seeds and the plants that grow from those seeds are hybrid versions of the parent plants—some combination of the genes from both. This can happen naturally or with our help.
Hybrids occur naturally when insects or other pollinators or the wind carry pollen from one plant to another. The “mother” plant is pollinated, and the seeds formed are a cross of the mother and whatever related plant provided the pollen. This might be from a plant in our garden or another growing nearby.
Commercial growers do their best to control all that, keeping the plants they are breeding isolated from other varieties, but your results will likely be more hit-and-miss in your garden, unless the plant is a self-pollinator.
The hybrid seeds you can buy are deliberately bred with two parent lines that are bred separately—inbred, usually—for two different and complementary traits.
These parent plants aren’t ones growing in your neighborhood. They’re kept under lock and key, usually by the seed producers, and they’re really not plants you’d want on their own.
When those two parents are brought together to cross-pollinate, the plant that results will have both of the beneficial traits that the parents had separately.
Those traits may relate to things we want like disease resistance, yield, size, or color.
The desired traits could also be longer shelf-life or ease of processing or something else that is more of a direct benefit to the seller or distributor than you.
The first generation of hybrid seeds are called F1 seeds, from the term filial (generation) 1, meaning “first children.”
Since we don’t have access to the two parent plants in our home gardens, we can’t grow our own similar hybrids without F1 seeds.
However, with careful selection over time, it is also possible for hybrids to stabilize, becoming reliable open-pollinated plants.
Why Seeds From Hybrids Don’t Grow “True To Type”
For all their good traits, the trade-off with growing hybrids is, seed saving is uncertain.
This may not be an issue if you routinely grow from store-bought seeds. It just comes up for those who like to save seeds and want some predictability when growing them.
If you were to save seeds from hybrids, the new plants you grow will likely be different than the parent plant, and the results may be inconsistent from plant to plant.
Some may be very similar to what you have while others are not—it’s all going to depend on the what the hybrid is, its genetic makeup, and what gets passed along. Plus, new generations will likely lose some of the beneficial traits that the hybrid was developed to have.
If you want that particular hybrid again, you have to buy the F1 seeds again.
Breed Your Own Hybrids
It isn’t just commercial seed producers who can deliberately breed hybrids. It’s a long process but you can do it too.
Select seeds from the plants that turn out best each generation and keep doing that for several years.
You may end up with your own stable, open-pollinated variety that you love. It’s a lot of work, but it can be done.
While not intentional, I’ve had hybrid tomato varieties self-seed in my garden year after year. It starts when the seeds from ripe fruit end up in the soil. I have no idea if they are stabilized hybrids or not but this is one instance where letting the hybrids reproduce generation after generation has resulted in just what I want—delicious fruits—names unknown.
Again, growing seeds from hybrids is unpredictable but there can, sometimes, be good results.
Examples of Hybrid Seeds
- Watermelon – Mini Yellow F1 Seeds
- Carrot – Deep Purple F1 Seeds
- Chinese Cabbage – Matilda F1 Seeds
The seed packet may say hybrid or F1 or the description may mention what traits the plant was bred for.
Heirlooms are open-pollinated, grow true to type, and passed along for generations.
There are differing opinions about what should qualify as heirloom and, unlike organic certification, there is no governing body regulating which seeds deserve the title.
First, here’s what everyone agrees on.
Heirlooms are reliable seeds, usually vegetables or flowers, often chosen for their flavor or appearance, that have passed down from generation to generation, within a family or community or long-standing seed companies.
But how many years and generations of consistent growing are required to deem a seed an heirloom?
This is where opinions vary.
Some say the plant has to be around and stable for at least 50 years which today would mean since the early 1970s.
Others name anywhere from 30 to 100 years.
Some insist on a fixed cut-off year—unchanged since 1950 for example—a deadline that makes no particular sense as time marches on.
It is agreed that heirlooms must be open-pollinated seeds—not hybrids—not even favorite hybrids that have been around for generations—to ensure the seeds we collect and share are true to type.
Examples of Heirloom Seeds
- Radicchio (Heirloom)
- Rutabaga – American Purple Top (Heirloom)
- White Lebanese Bush Summer Squash (Heirloom)
Look for the word heirloom or heritage on the seed packet.
There are many types of seeds used in agriculture but I mention GMOs because there is misinformation about them in the home gardening world.
GMOs are also sometimes confused with hybrids—two completely different things.
GMOs are genetically-modified or genetically-engineered seeds used for agriculture—not home gardens.
GMO seeds are genetically-modified or genetically-engineered seeds widely used in agriculture for over 25 years.
The genes used to create the desired traits may come from the DNA of other plant or animal species. This type of plant breeding does not occur naturally.
GMO seeds are not sold to gardeners and very few of the plants we grow at home even have GMO versions for agricultural use.
If you see “non-GMO” on garden seed packets, it’s a sales tactic and/or an attempt to deflect misinformation as any seeds you buy for home use are already non-GMO.
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by Melissa J. Will
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