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/.
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Mike and Lyn,
Thanks for your vote, glad you liked the info! We are planning to write more articles in the future so stay tuned! 👍
Hi Elana, I’ll make a note to look at adding this topic to the article list for the future. Thanks for the idea! 😀
When you click on the link, Enter your name and address into the space. Then it should email you the PDF version in normal size. I’m thinking maybe you clicked and downloaded the preview image? Let me know you got the guide okay! If you have further trouble, you can email me at [email protected] 🙂
There are a lot of people being impacted negatively through processed and sprayed foods etc., but the clean food movement is gaining so much traction. And that’s because of people like you who advocate for organic fresh clean food. Thanks so much for being a clean food advocate!
Thanks, such a worthwhile article.
I prefer the written format for this kind of information. Thank you for the information. It was well balanced and thoughtful.
Lol Debbie, I had the same thing happen to me with two squashes… the result was a not so tasty variety. Hopefully in the future the crosses will be more edible. 😂
I love being able to read it rather than listen to it I can reread if I didn’t understand something or go back to an earlier area to compare. Thanks for all you do!
Thanks for concise & clear info! Interesting comments, too.
Would appreciate similar clear info on diseases affecting leafy greens & herbs, like parsley, plus fungus like mildew.
Luv U All.
I loved the article! Let’s have more of those.
But when I saved the Quick Guide, I found it too small to read. I enlarged it just a LITTLE bit, and the print was too blurry. Am I getting old? I couldn’t see it.
Thank you for a broad informing article. I’ve been an organic advocate for many years. If you take a close look at people’s health today along with the Advent of processed “foods” we can see the negative impact on the high use of chemicals on our health. Thanks for reinforcing how to select and grow our own healthy food!
Thanks so much for sharing this information! Love the benefit of a printout. And I appreciate your optimism of “only ten plants with GMO seeds on the market”….I am actually FURIOUS that our government continues to put profit over health (for people and planet). Fortunately I can make a difference by purchasing organic and heirloom seeds. Thanks!
Just an FYI, your example with hair color is reversed. Two (naturally) blonde parents cannot produce a brunette child, as blonde is recessive and requires that genes from both parents be blonde. 2 brunettes, however, can, and do produce blonde children, as brunette is dominant. Any brunette can carry a blonde gene.
Not meant to nit pick, just wanted to clarify! Thanks for the interesting article!
You said “what if an ant accidentally cross-pollinates a zucchini and a pumpkin?” You might get something that looks like a zucchini on the outside with orange-yellow flesh on the inside. Ask me how I know. Last summer I planted seeds I had saved from a long pie pumpkin, and less than half of the resulting fruits were “true-to-type”. Still, it was an interesting experiment, and most of them were acceptable to eat.
I usually choose organic heirloom seeds whenever available, followed by open pollinated. For the past couple of years, I have been saving seeds from at least some of the vegetables that have grown well for me. I want to see if eventually I might end up with improved varieties better suited to the climate. I’m not so sure about the pumpkins though. I read somewhere that they can cross with squashes growing over a mile away.
Thank you for providing the print vs YouTube/podcast/etc. And thank you for the distinctions in seeds. That is helpful for newbies and experienced alike.
I think we are planning more articles. What are you interested in reading about?
I completely agree. It’s feels so good to vote with my money and support the companies who go to great lengths to preserve our past… for our future. 😉
That sounds like a very balanced way to go about it. I just love Heirloom varieties, but doing it all at once is a lot. I like your approach. 🙂
Ditto! Although I like supporting the companies that are taking the time and energy to keep seed diversity alive.
This was helpful. While I had picked up most of this in bits and pieces, the organized thorough handling of the subject was great. Love being able to read it rather than listen to it. 😀 ❤️🌱
I plan to do the combination. Hybrid and Heirloom seeds. The hybrids are those I don’t have time or space to do seed saving and therefore am wanting consistency and promised production. The heirlooms are where I plan to spend time and energy growing, nurturing, and saving the best seeds.
Long term I hope to grow from all my own saved seeds.
yes, this is a great article. really helpful to what i want to know. i would love to see more articles like this.