Propagation Station: Starting from seed, part 1

As we all partake in social distancing by staying at home, gardening–whether indoors or in the backyard–is a perfect place to put your energy and creativity into. In part one of this series about seeds, we’ll talk about different types of seeds and labels to look out for. Later, in part two: finding your climatic zone, buying local seeds, and what LEAF uses.

What kinds of seeds are there?

Not all seed packages are the same! The type of seeds you buy will determine the quality and quantity of the crop. Here are some keywords you’ll find in almost every seed catalog you browse through; they can help determine your order of priorities when buying seed.

  1. Open-pollinated vs. not
    • Seeds that are open-pollinated mean that the parent plants were pollinated by wind, insects, animals (including humans via hand pollination), or other natural means–and only with plants of the same species and variety. The resulting seeds are genetically diverse, while remaining “true to type,” or closely resembling the parent plants. This means open-pollinated seeds can be saved and used over many seasons and still retain the desired traits of the variety.
    • Seeds that are not open-pollinated produce plants that are not true to type. This can occur when the parent plant is pollinated by, or crossed with, a plant of a different variety within the same species. The resulting plant may be a bit of a mystery, or even be a new variety such as a hybrid, but would not be the original plant intended to be grown. This means seeds that are saved and used over many seasons will produce plants with inconsistent traits.
  2. Heirloom vs. hybrid
    • Heirloom seeds come from open-pollinated varieties where the seeds from the best crops were collected, tracked, and passed down for generations within a family or community–typically for 50 years or more. This meticulous way of preserving and passing on a plant variety typically yields a delicious and nutritious crop, at the cost of more expensive seed that grow less vigorously than hybrid varieties. The seeds can continue to be saved and used to grow plants possessing the same traits.
    • Hybrid seeds come from crossing parent plants of two different varieties, each possessing desired characteristics that are incorporated into this new hybrid variety. These first generation (F1) hybrid seeds are bred for more vigorous yield, consistent plant and crop size, or disease resistance. However, if seeds from these F1 plants are saved and used, the resulting crop will perform less vigorously and will not possess all the traits of the F1 hybrid.
  3. Organic vs. non-organic
    • Organic seeds were produced with methods that only use natural, or non-synthetic, methods to fertilize parent plants and control pests. Buying organic seed supports sustainable agricultural practices, and using organic seed reduces exposure to chemicals in the garden. They are less common in plant catalogs and may be more temperature or pest sensitive than non-organic seeds. Certified Organic seed was produced by a certified organic grower and will be discussed in the next section.
    • Non-organic seeds were produced with conventional practices that involve the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, or insecticides any time during growing, harvesting, or packaging. This includes treated seeds, or seeds that received a chemical application right before packaging that assists with germination. Non-organic seeds are more widely available and cheaper than organic, and may be easier to germinate in varying growing conditions.
  4. GMO vs. non-GMO
    • GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds were produced by inserting desirable DNA from another organism into the DNA of a plant seed to create crops with traits such as pest resistance or drought tolerance. GM seeds are only available for sale to commercial growers; however, home growers can potentially plant GM seeds if they are taking seeds from store-bought produce. All GMO products in the U.S. have passed safety requirements regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. While GMO products have been tested since the 1980s, long-term research is still in progress regarding beliefs that they could cause allergic reactions, antibacterial resistance, or even cancer.

What’s in a label?

Certified Organic

Seeds that are Certified Organic are produced by Certified Organic growers, and are prepared according to standards that do not allow the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) during the growth, harvest, and packaging of the product. Products are reviewed and certified by the US Department of Agriculture.

Non-GMO Verified

Seeds that are Non-GMO Verified are inspected and approved by the Non GMO Project, a non-profit organization determined to keep consumers well informed on genetically modified products. It provides the widest list of non-GMO labelled products in North America.

Safe Seed Pledge

Started by nine seed companies in 1999 and now signed by over 370 seed companies worldwide, the Safe Seed Pledge states the company will not knowingly buy, trade, or sell genetically modified seeds through their brand. This means their entire catalog is guaranteed to be non-GMO.

What are some takeaways?

The types of seed you buy should reflect your gardening priorities. Or if you’re feeling experimental, try planting two types such as heirloom and hybrid and see which you prefer more. Not all seed packets are the same, and you don’t have to be limited to just one kind! Listed below are some additional resources if you’d like more information on seed terminology and types. In our next post, we will share more information on seed companies and what brands LEAF has used.

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