Heirlooms, GMOs, Hybrids, Open-Pollinated.....
What Do All those Words Really Mean?
32 years ago, we started Bountiful Gardens with the idea that people could grow their own food without weird chemicals, and save their own seed, just as gardeners have done for generations. At the time, the seed industry was replacing old-time open-pollinated varieties with hybrids developed for agribusiness and long-distance shipping. Now, we face the new threat of genetically-altered crops. Over the years, we have introduced so many gardeners to growing heirloom varieties, composting, and seed saving.
Here’s a guide to the terms:
TRADITIONAL PLANT BREEDING starts by pollinating the flower of a plant with pollen from a related, but slightly different, variety. Then, over several generations, the plants are selected for certain traits. In this way, broccoli, for example, became different from the tough wild plants that are its ancestors.
OPEN-POLLINATED: As people keep selecting their best plants for seed, the results gradually become more predictable. Eventually every time you plant that kind of seed, the plants give similar results. Then the seed has been stabilized as an open-pollinated variety. The animal equivalent would be beagles, or golden retrievers—you know what to expect in looks and, to some extent, behavior, because they are purebred. Individuals have slight variations within the “family resemblance”.
HEIRLOOM SEEDS are open-pollinated varieties that have been around a long time (50 years minimum). Older varieties are often more nutritious and more adapted to organic cultivation--that used to be all there was. Farmers and gardeners are breeding new open-pollinated varieties today that will be the heirlooms of the future. These days, many people use “heirloom” to mean any open-pollinated variety, new or old, so if you are looking for old varieties, ask the seller what they mean.
HYBRID SEEDS are seeds from the first generation of a cross between two varieties. The cross is made by traditional breeding techniques, like brushing the flower of one with the pollen from another. Plants from hybrid seeds are very uniform and predictable, which is why farmers use them (they might all be ready to harvest the same day, for example) .
However, the next generation of plants won’t be predictable because it is not a stabilized variety--sometimes they are even sterile. Hybrids are like mutts, whose puppies might all be different. The bad thing about hybrids is not how they are made; it’s that their parentage is secret and their seed doesn’t ‘breed true” for seed-saving. Hybrids make gardeners dependent on the companies who produce the seed. By law, hybrid seeds must be labeled “hybrid” or “F1” next to the variety name, and are more expensive than open-pollinated varieties. We don’t carry hybrids. We feel that food crops are a common heritage we all share, not a set of trade secrets. Food independence must include seed-saving for local conditions.
GMO VARIETIES are not the result of traditional plant breeding, but of procedures in a laboratory. Instead of using pollen from another plant, technicians can insert genes that don’t even come from plants—they might come from a bacteria or a fish. Often, viruses are used to insert the desired gene. GMO seeds are mostly sold to big agribusiness farms who sign a contract with the GMO company. The main GMO crops are corn, soy, peanuts, and canola, (now sugar beets and alfalfa) used for animal feed and processed food that goes to supermarkets. The danger to home gardens is not from the seeds we buy; it’s from pollen in the air and food at the store. We do not carry GMOs. We don’t buy any seed at all from the companies who produce GMOs.
TREATED SEEDS are coated with pesticide or fungicide chemicals after harvest. We don’t carry any treated seed.
CERTIFIED ORGANIC SEED has to come from farms inspected by the USDA’s Organic Certification program. They can’t use chemicals and must meet other requirements. The seed can’t be GMO. Seeds grown organically without chemicals but not certified by the USDA program are designated GB, B, or N in this catalog. Certified organic seeds are designated O, next to the price.
Days to Maturity figures are really just for comparing between varieties within a category. Actual days will vary from location to location, depending on garden conditions.