Monday, February 18, 2013

Episode 4: Wherein Organigirl Teaches You About the Differences Between Hybrid, Non-Hybrid, Heirloom, and Genetically Modified Seeds

Fennel Seeds by Kristel Rae Barton

We’re smack dab in one of my favorite times of the year - seed ordering season. Is there anything more enjoyable for the home gardener than gazing longingly at the colorful pages of a favorite seed catalog, dreaming about all of the wonderful things you might be able to grow and eat if you can fend off maniacal, trouble-making gnomes? I say no.

I get the feeling that even the gnomes get excited this time of year. It’s the time when they probably think to themselves, “Hey, maybe this is the year she’ll forget to order the seeds!” or “Sure, our every attempt to stop the vegetable garden from encroaching on our territory last year was foiled with little effort, but maybe we’ll do better this year!” Not likely.

I keep making my seed orders (three of them already this year!), and the gnomes keep unleashing their fury, but the things keep growing. The things. keep. growing.

So, in honor of what shall henceforth be known as “spring kickoff” season (which has nothing to do with football), I thought I’d share with you what the differences are between hybrid, non-hybrid, heirloom, and GMO seeds, which types of seeds I order, and why I order the seeds that I do. I won’t go into the specific varieties that I prefer (you can expect that in an upcoming post), but here’s some useful information to help you decide what seeds are right for you and your own super garden.

Hybrid Seeds vs. Non-Hybrid/Open-Pollinated Seeds

Seeds are categorized in several ways. First, seeds can be hybrid or open-pollinated.  Hybrid seeds are a cross between two varieties of the same species of plant. The reason hybrid plants are created is because it’s possible to cross two plants that each have desirable characteristics and end up with a plant that exhibits both of those characteristics. However, when that hybrid plant goes to seed, those seeds will not grow into plants that are the same as the plant they came from. Instead, they’ll all be different, exhibiting a variety of characteristics of the original two plants from which the hybrid plant was created. For this reason, gardeners who want the desirable characteristics of a hybrid plant must purchase new seed every year.  

In contrast, open-pollinated seeds are seeds resulting from one plant of a specific variety being pollinated by another plant of the same variety and species. Both “parent” plants are the same variety and exhibit the same characteristics and therefore the plants that grow from the resulting seeds will be the same variety as their “parent” plants.

So why do I choose open-pollinated seed rather than hybrid seed? It all comes down to the future. I’d like to be able to save seed from the plants I grow and plant that seed for years to come, knowing that the effort I put into seeing that seed grow into healthy plants will result in a harvest of vegetables with the same excellent traits of the plants from which I harvested that seed.

Saving seeds is a learned art. Some plants self-pollinate, so saving seeds from those plants is easy because they tend not to cross. However, some plants are easily pollinated by other varieties of their species. Special care must be taken in order to ensure that those plants are pollinated by plants of the same variety of their species, otherwise they may be cross pollinated, thus creating hybrid seed with unpredictable characteristics.

As I grow a variety of different vegetables from open-pollinated seed, I’m learning which of those varieties I prefer, and also slowly learning how to save seeds so that eventually I can stop buying seeds altogether.  Being a superhero isn’t exactly a high paying job - besides, I grow my own vegetables so that I can be more independent, and having to buy seeds each year sure doesn’t feel like independence to me!

What is Heirloom Seed?

Heirloom seeds are seeds of a specific variety that have been grown as open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seed for many years because of it’s specific traits. Because hybridization does occur in nature (when a plant from one variety of a species is pollinated via wind, insects, etc. by a plant of a different variety of that same species), unless care is taken to preserve a variety of a species of plant, that variety can be lost.

Genetically Modified (GM) Seeds

Genetically modified seeds are seeds that are created when DNA from another organism is incorporated into the DNA of a plant. The resulting plants may have a desirable trait as a result of that DNA being included in the new plant, however, plants that are genetically modified in this way do not occur in nature. Because long term studies have not been done regarding the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s; plants or other living things that have been genetically altered) on the environment or on humans or animals upon consumption of those GMO’s, some feel that introducing GMO’s into the environment isn’t wise. I choose not to use GM seeds for that reason.

In addition to uncertainty about the effects of GM seeds, seeds cannot be saved from GM plants. As with hybrid seeds, this means that it becomes necessary to purchase new seed every year.

Now that you know the differences between GMO, heirloom, hybrid, and non-hybrid seed, I thought I’d share with you a few of my favorite seed companies, which I’ve listed below. Each of these companies sells heirloom, open-pollinated, non-GMO seeds. I’ve purchased nearly all of my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds for the last few years and I have yet to be disappointed. There are endless varieties of heirloom seeds available from these companies, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself sitting for hours at a time, dreaming about what could be. If you’re like me, it’s a given. Enjoy!

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Seeds of Change

Seed Saver’s Exchange


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