Last Updated: January 18, 2019
How do you know that what you eat is actually nutrient-rich and healthy? This is why many folks start growing their own vegetables and herbs. So you can lead a healthy lifestyle, free from weird chemicals and preservatives and free from chronic diseases, too…
Seeds are where you start your garden.
But the minute you start reading those seed packets, you see words like hybrid, open-pollinated, organic, conventional, naturally-grown, heirloom, or worse, there’s no label at all.
What do all these words mean and what do they mean for the long-term health of my body, my community, and the Earth? Is there a right or wrong one? What happens to my health if I choose the wrong one? Who can I ask that will help me understand? Aye, overwhelm!
CLICK HERE for the Quick Guide to Seeds for Your Vegetable & Herb Garden… and continue reading below for more detailed information.
Deciphering Seed Labels – 3 Main Types
The three main types of seeds are determined by HOW the seeds were grown or bred. They’ll either be Open Pollinated, Hybrid, or GMO. While it IS possible to have a combination Open-Pollinated Hybrid seed, beware of information that groups Hybrids and GMOs together. They are both man-made but VERY different!
Once we explore the three main types of seeds, we’ll dive into additional descriptions you may see, such as Heirloom, Organic, Conventional, and Naturally-grown.
Seed Type 1 – Open Pollinated
Open Pollinated means that pollinators like insects, birds or wind spread pollen and your seeds are a result of that pollination.
Why choose an Open Pollinated Seed?
While they can be a bit harder to find and more expensive, Open Pollinated seeds can produce plants that look and behave just like the parent plant. This is called “true to type.” Which is great when you have a flavor that you adore and you want to continue growing it! With ‘true-to type,’ you’ll always know what you’re going to get from your plant.
While not all Open Pollinated seeds are Heirlooms, all Heirloom seeds are classified as Open Pollinated and are passed down from generation to generation as part of a cultural heritage. If you grow Heirloom varieties, you’ll be eating almost the same exact food that your great, great grandparents ate.
But what if an ant accidentally cross-pollinates a zucchini and a pumpkin? The resulting seeds are Open-Pollinated because it happened in the wild, but they’re also a Hybrid. So while some Open Pollinated seeds are ‘true-to-type’, others are hybrids. This happens all the time in small gardens and it’s why there are so many strange and delicious variations that exist!
While these Open Pollinated anomalies are technically hybrids, a seed packet labeled as a Hybrid means people intentionally created it.
Seed Type 2 – Hybrids
Hybrid seeds (typically labeled F-1 by seed companies) refers to two plants being cross-pollinated intentionally by humans to create desired qualities like flavor, high yield, disease resistance, and heat tolerance to name a few.
Humans have been making hybrids for centuries to make it easier to grow more food with more predictability. Cross-pollinating is as simple as using a paintbrush to move pollen from one plant to another… just like honeybees.
Why buy Hybrid Seeds for your Garden?
A lot can go wrong in the garden, and Hybrids can stack the deck in your favor. If you’re just getting started growing food for the first time, you may want high-yield Hybrids to increase your odds of a successful garden.
For example, if you have a wet climate, you may want to look for tomato varieties resistant to fungal diseases. This way, you can enjoy more tomatoes each season and reduce the potential of your tomato plant succumbing to common fungal diseases like blight or leaf spot.
You can sometimes get the same effect by planting Open-Pollinated seeds and saving the seeds each year until the variety adapts to your local climate naturally. However, climatic adaptation of Open Pollinated seeds takes a couple seasons (if it even works for the variety you choose) so the man-made Hybrid can pay off in the short run.
Can you save Hybrid seeds from your garden?
If you plant your garden with hybrids and then save seeds from those plants, the next generation may or may not have the same traits you started with. It’s like when a brunette child is born from two parents with blond hair. The parent has a mixture of traits and you never know which traits will emerge in the next generation as the dominant trait.
If you like surprises, and have space to experiment in your garden, it’s fun to see what happens. But it is very unpredictable. Let’s say you let two tomato plants sprout from hybrid seeds. One of them might produce very little fruit that is similar to the fruit from the hybrid, and the other might give you a good amount of delicious fruit that looks and tastes nothing like the original hybrid.
So you CAN save hybrid seeds… just know you’re in for a surprise!
Seed Type 3 – How are GMOs different than Hybrid Seeds?
The final type of seeds are GMOs, Genetically Modified Organisms. Most recently, these seeds have been rebranded as BE (bio engineered) seeds. GMOs cannot happen in nature. GMO’s require a high tech gene splicing lab where the DNA of the seed itself is altered.
So any comparison that conveys Hybrids are similar or no different than GMOs is completely inaccurate.
Also, whereas Hybrids cross two related plants, GMOs cross genes from different kingdoms! Many GMOs splice bacteria genes with plant genes with the goal that these plants can later be sprayed with toxic herbicides and pesticides without the plant itself dying.
Part of the process that goes into creating GMO’s entails blasting these genes with antibiotics to kill unwanted cells. This creates an antibiotic resistant plant.1
Because of the uncertainty of the health risks of GMOs, many home gardeners choose to grow NON-GMO.
How to avoid GMO seeds in your garden:
It’s easier than you think to keep GMOs out of your home garden! While there are many additives, enzymes, flavorings and processing agents that are GMO’s, there are currently only ten plants that have GMO versions on the market: corn, cotton, soybeans, alfalfa, papaya, zucchini & summer squash, sugarbeets, canola, potato and apple.2
When you’re ordering seeds, take a look: many seed companies that serve the home garden market have agreed not to sell GMO’s by taking the Safe Seed Pledge. Currently, the only company that we’ve seen supplying GMO seeds to gardeners is Semini Brand seeds (a subsidiary of Monsanto). If you look at the Semini website, the GMO versions of Summer Squash and Corn are all labeled “B” for Biotech.
Note when this article was last updated (see top). If we hear of new GMO’s on the market, we’ll update here. And pleas Contact [email protected] with new developments that you hear about to help us keep this up to date.
So what about Organic, Non-GMO, Conventional and Naturally Grown Seeds?
Now that you know HOW each of the three types of seed was created, you might see one of these other terms on a seed packet. And you may have already seen these labels on the food you buy at the grocery store, too.
Why Conventional and Naturally-Grown mean nothing
There are no standards or checklists for these words to be used on seed packets. Naturally-Grown might sound like a good thing… but it means nothing. And conventional is just a word that people use to describe what is not certified Organic.
So if Conventional and Naturally Grown mean nothing, what is Organic?
Organic seeds are harvested from certified organic plants. This means the parent plant has met the organic requirements for that territory or region. In the United States, you will see the USDA Organic label which prohibits certificate holders from using non-organic sprays and GMO’s. So in the U.S., there is no such thing as an Organic GMO.
And just like food, there are seeds grown organically, but not certified, because the certification process is costly. Typically a seed company will tell you when that is the case. However, they have no way to prove that the seeds are actually organic.
If you want more information about your seeds, simply ask the company. If they hesitate to answer or you don’t feel comfortable with their answers, look for other companies who are happy to answer your questions.
If you buy Conventional seeds and grow them organically, is your food organic?
So why not just buy the cheaper conventional seed and grow it organically? Well you could. And with the addition of non-GMO labels (like Project Verified NON-GMO), many people are happy doing just that. There’s various research about how much or how little toxins are left over in seeds of a plant that’s grown conventionally. You just never know.
The advantage of buying Certified Organic seeds is based on principle. You’re voting with your dollars and supporting organic practices. Plus, you know what you’re getting.
What kind of seeds will you grow in your vegetable garden?
Most home gardeners grow a mixture of Open-Pollinated, Hybrid and Heirloom seeds. The decision typically comes down to taste, preference, and values. And those may change from season to season.
But now that you know what the labels on your seeds packets mean, you can make educated decisions on your way to becoming a steward not only of the land but your long term vitality.
Want a simple chart to remind you of all the differences? CLICK HERE for the Quick Guide to Seeds for Your Vegetable & Herb Garden
Smith, Jeffrey M., and Michael Meacher. Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating. Paperback, 7th Printing ed., Green Books, 2003.
“Benefits of GMOs and Biotechnology.” Monsanto, monsanto.com/innovations/biotech-gmos/.