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ask-ruth-pictureDear Ruth,

I am planning this year’s garden and want to buy my seeds. Can you explain the different seed types?

Roy H.
Asheville, NC

Dear Roy,

Buying your garden seed is the perfect way to dispel the winter blues, and encourage an optimistic frame of mind! When navigating seed choices for your 2010 garden, the major categories include: organic, conventional, open-pollinated, heirloom, treated, and GMO.

    • Organically-grown seeds can be either heirloom, open-pollinated, or hybrid type. They are never GMO or treated seeds. Organically-grown seeds are the optimal choice because these seeds have been raised using the same guidelines as other organic crops, i.e. with no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides and utilizing methods with the least impact on the natural world, all living things, and the environment. Certified Organic growers are required to use organic seed.
    • Open-pollinated seeds are treasured by gardeners, both young and old. The beauty of open-pollinated seed is that it can be harvested at the end of the growing season to use as your seed stock for the next season. Here’s how: let some of your open-pollinated plants “go to seed”. Harvest the seed when it is ripe, process the seeds, and store them in an airtight container until planting time. As long as you have not allowed the seed to cross-pollinate with another variety, the saved seed will be “true” to the original seed. By growing out and saving open-pollinated seeds every season, you will always have a ready supply of seeds for your next growing season. You could call this food security, or simply view it as completing the circle of your harvest season. Open-pollinated seeds are usually also heirloom seeds, but there are some open-pollinated seeds on the market that have been recently developed, and therefore are not considered heirloom seeds.
    • Heirloom seeds can be traced back many generations and are sometimes called heritage seeds. They have a very rich genetic history, and some well-known seed companies got their start as recipients of a particular heirloom seed that was passed down in their family. All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated and can be saved from year to year. Varieties would generally be at least pre-World War II to be considered heirloom. Some heirloom seeds, like Black-Seeded Simpson Lettuce, can be found on almost any seed rack. Other more obscure seeds have been saved from extinction by organizations like seed exchanges. Heirloom seeds from your particular region are especially desirable because they will likely be well adapted to local conditions.
    • Hybrid seed varieties are created when inbred seed lines are crossed producing seed varieties that offer more potential than either of the parent seeds, with characteristics such as higher yield, more disease resistance, and greater uniformity. These qualities can offer distinct advantages to organic gardeners, especially in regard to disease resistance. The down side: because hybrid seeds are not open-pollinated, their enhanced qualities are not passed on to subsequent generations of seeds. Farmers wishing to grow a particular hybrid variety must buy new seed each year. Seeds harvested from hybrid plants will not be “true”, and could even embody the worst characteristics of the parent seeds.
    • Treated seed is conventional seed that has been treated, generally with the addition of a fungicide. Treated seeds are dyed so they are easy to identify (for example -corn seed that is dyed pink). Treated seed is not allowed for Certified Organic growers.
    • GMO seeds are a recent and extremely controversial development (the first genetically engineered plant was created in 1982). GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. GMO seeds are not allowed in organic agriculture, and there is widespread concern among organic farmers that pollen from GMO crops could permanently contaminate organic and heirloom seed supplies. As I understand it, GMO seeds require a legal agreement between the seed company and the grower; so regular gardeners are unlikely to accidentally purchase GMO seeds. Seed sellers should be happy to answer any questions regarding seed types. Many seed companies have taken the “Safe Seed Pledge” stating that they do not knowingly buy or sell any GMO seed. The creation of GMO seeds involves unnaturally manipulating existing seed genetics with the addition, insertion, or removal of genes. Production of herbicide & insect resistant GMO varieties of soybeans, canola, cotton, and corn is on the rise around the globe, particularly in third-world countries – you have probably heard the terms Roundup-Ready and Bt corn. Simultaneously, many countries do not allow planting or importation of Genetically Modified crops because their effect on human health has not been adequately researched. This politically charged topic brings many questions to the fore – including the health and security of our global food supply, the rights of farmers and families worldwide, and the control of seed production by multi-national corporations. As individuals, I hope you will be active in fighting the permanent introduction of GMO seed varieties into our seed stocks, and into our food for human and animal consumption.

Consider supporting local small businesses when purchasing seed for your garden. Local area garden centers offer a variety of open-pollinated, heirloom, hybrid, and organically-grown seeds. Appalachian Seeds,, is a local farm that offers a diverse selection of heirloom tomato seeds available online or from their farm in Morganton, NC. Sow True Seeds,, is a local seed company that specializes in open-pollinated seeds, both organic and conventional. Their seed can be found at local garden centers, natural groceries, online, and at their retail location in Asheville.

Be sure to visit the Seed Exchange at the 17th Annual Organic Growers School Spring Conference on March 6 & 7, 2010, held in a new location this year, at UNCA in Asheville, NC. Register now for earlybird rates.

Happy seed gathering,

Ruth Gonzalez

Ask Ruth © 2013 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Ruth Gonzalez

Author: Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She serves on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors, and in her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

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