A number of years ago I had no idea what heirloom seeds were and had never heard of a hybrid seed. Throw in the terms open-pollinated, organic, treated, GMO or wild-crafted seeds and I was really baffled. I thought a seed was a seed. I thought a seed found inside any vegetable could be removed, dried, planted and grown into a vegetable producing plant. Wrong! How did I discover this wasn’t true? By a miserable failure one spring about six years ago.
I decided I wanted to grow peppers and tomatoes from starts inside our house (back before I owned a greenhouse). I meticulously removed seeds from some store bought peppers and tomatoes and dried them out. Then I planted them, sat the seed pots in our south facing window, watered them and waited for them to grow. One plant grew out of all the seeds I planted and it never produced any tomatoes. I was baffled and quite disappointed by the whole experience.
I told a friend with organic farming experience about my seed saving and growing failure. She explained to me that it wasn’t my lack of a green thumb that prevented these seeds and plants from growing and producing. Instead they were very likely hybrid vegetables and their seeds would be next to impossible to use to regrow strong, healthy vegetables from.
I’ve learned a thing or two since then and now I’m a bit of a seed saving fanatic and collector of heirloom seeds. I thought I’d shared a little bit of what I’ve learned with you to help demystify the types of seeds out there so you don’t make the same mistake I did six years ago!
7 Types of Garden Seeds Explained
Here are seven main types of garden seeds you may come across in seed catalogs and on seed packets.
1. Heirloom Seeds:
Heirloom seeds are best known as the seeds that are saved each year and passed down from one generation to the next. Since not everyone is lucky enough to be gifted with saved seeds from your grandparents, heirloom seeds are sold in seed packets in stores across the country and in online seed shops like our favorite based out of Colorado. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning they are pollinated by wind or insects like the honey bee flying from one flower to the next. The beauty of heirloom seeds is that they have a rich history, some of them dating back several hundred years (I’ve been reading about this in my newest favorite magazine Heirloom Gardener and book The Heirloom Life Gardener). I love to think about generations of gardeners and farmers before me saving the seeds from their best garden produce to grow the next year’s crop, and the next year’s and the next. Until one day a packet of those seeds lands in my hands to be planted in our soil, to grow and produce seeds for us to save for next year, and the next and one day be passed on to Little A when she’s older. Here are our tips on how to save heirloom seeds.
2. Open Pollinated Seeds:
Open pollinated seeds, as I mentioned above, are seeds that do not need any human intervention to be pollinated since nature does this naturally with wind and insects. Sometimes people may confuse heirloom seeds and open pollinated seeds since they can both be pollinated without human intervention and can be saved and regrown the next year. The big difference is that there are new varieties of open pollinated seeds being created by natural pollination and haven’t been around for decades or centuries like the heirloom seeds. Like heirloom seeds, open pollinated seeds are an excellent choice for gardeners because of their natural ability to pollinate and regrow each year from saved seeds.
3. Hybrid Seeds:
Hybrid seeds are produced when two different but related parent plants are cross pollinated. Over a century ago some gardeners and farmers used this method to create a new generation of plants that had the characteristics they desired. This method eventually became popular for larger scale agriculture. A hybrid plant will produce vegetables, but the seeds in those vegetables will not typically produce the same vegetable. You will likely end up with inferior plants of different varieties. The seeds may not grow at all or may grow and produce a less desirable result. This results in typically having to buy new seeds every year. Hybrid Seeds are often marked “F 1” on the seed packet. One of the few hybrids I grow every year is the super delicious, sweet Sun Gold Cherry Tomatoes . I’ve tried saving seeds and regrowing them with no success. These things are SO delicious, they’re the one hybrid I’m willing to buy every year!
4. Organic Seeds:
Organic seeds are ones that have been produced on a farm that has met the USDA Certified Organic standards. There are a lot of farmers who produce high quality heirloom and open pollinated seeds with natural growing practices but have not applied for Organic certification. Buying organic seeds is great, but if your seeds aren’t organic it doesn’t necessarily mean that they were grown with pesticides.
5. Treated Seeds:
Treated seeds can often be identified because they will have an unnatural color to them. Seeds may be treated with a chemical pesticide or fungicide to prevent mold. I have always bought seeds from reputable seed companies that follow a natural approach to growing and do not use any harmful products on their seeds. Our favorite seed company, Botanical Interests, is committed to producing untreated seeds. Another reason why they’re our favorite!
6. Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO Seeds:
A Genetically Modified Organism is more commonly known as a GMO and there is a lot of buzz around this these days. A GMO is made when researchers take genetic DNA from one species and artificially inject it into another unrelated species. It isn’t a natural process and creates a plant that may look normal, but the genes are not naturally derived like heirlooms or open pollinated plants. Organic Certification standards prohibit the use of any genetically modified organisms. There are seed companies that are committed to not selling GMO products like Botanical Interests and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
7. Wild Crafted Seeds:
Wild crafted seeds are seeds that are collected from plants growing naturally in the wild. For example, last year we harvested a bunch of chokecherries in the mountains. I found some dried berries on the shrub and planted them in our garden. I also picked up a packet of Clarkia wildflower seeds at the local seed library a few months ago that were wild harvested in the mountains.
Now that you have a better understanding of the difference between heirloom seeds and the six other types, which types of seeds do you think you’ll grow this year?