In the Garden – January


The start of a new gardening year already? While we have not yet put aside our holiday decorations and activities, it is almost time to think about 2022.

Whether you are relatively new to gardening or an old hand at it, it’s time to plan for seed starting if that suits your fancy. With pandemic-inspired interest in home gardening and growing from seed, it makes sense to order seeds before companies sell out of the seed variety you have your eyes on.

One of the things that confuses even old garden hands is the terminology used in seed catalogs. It certainly has confused me at times. So I thought that perhaps I could take this column to go over some generic terms one sees in seed catalogs: genetically modified, organic, heirloom, open pollinated and hybrid.

Genetically modified (GM, GMO or GEO) seed comes from plants whose genetics have been modified in laboratories to produce plants with some sort of advantage over seeds whose inheritance lies in the field rather than the lab.

Genes from a different organism have been spliced into the genetic code of a GMO seed to enhance productivity, increase resistance to pests, or create resistance to the herbicides used in agriculture for weed control. Plant breeding has gone on for millennia, but over time the term GM has become restricted to plants developed in the laboratory. Currently, few GM seeds are sold to home gardeners, since they were developed for large-scale agriculture and for provisioning groceries, but that could change at any time.

Organic seed is non-GM seed that has been grown on certified organic farms and processed in certified facilities. These seeds have never come in contact with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, although they might have been grown with those approved for organic use.

Organic seeds can be handled with bare hands and used for sprouting – even eaten direct from the package – without fear of contacting harmful chemicals. All this care, of course, comes at a cost and you should expect to pay more – just as you pay more for organic produce in the grocery store.

Heirloom or ‘heritage seed’ lacks a precise definition. However, most catalogs will label plants grown before WWII as heirloom. Of course, what is heirloom in one place does not mean that it really is a heritage plant in another region.

Nonetheless, these are usually robust plants that have stood the test of taste and time, having hit their stride when local farming and home gardening supplied the primary provisions on our dining tables. Stick to heirloom seeds from your own region, and you will not be disappointed. If you prefer to be delighted by the wild, wonderful or exotic, these are not the plants for you. Note that heirloom plants will not be GM, but they may or may not be organic. All heirloom plants are open pollinated, which is the next term used in many catalogs.

Open pollinated or OP is a term likely to confuse the home gardener selecting seeds from a catalog. It comes from the concept that in a natural setting, most plants are pollinated by the wind and by pollinators carrying pollen from nearby plants of the same variety. This produces fertile seed that is strikingly genetically similar to its parents.

Over time, seed companies have worked carefully to make sure that seeds they label as OP will grow true to their parents and will pass on predicable characteristics to their own progeny. They do this by growing the seed in large plantings of genetically identical plants that will pollinate each other.

Therefore, when you buy OP seed, the plant will have relatively predictable characteristics and will yield seed that you can save for next year’s crop.

However, there might be occasional surprises because ‘open’ creates the opportunity for – well – wayward parents. This is particularly the case for OP seeds that you save yourself when your plant was easily cross-pollinated by your neighbor’s plant.

OP stands in contrast to hybrid seeds, which sometimes bear the additional designation of F1 or F2 to indicate their genetic generation. These are seeds derived by fertilizing one variety of a plant with the pollen from a different but compatible variety. This is done in an effort to blend the best characteristics of each parent. When developed by professional plant geneticists you can get some spectacular and unusual plants.

However, the plants have not yet been stabilized into varieties that breed true and can be left to open pollinate. That means that you are unlikely to experience success with saving seeds in the hope that you will get a similar plant next year. I’ve noticed that many garden vegetable seeds are hybrids, but this seems to be less true of herb and flower seeds.

Now bring on those seed catalogs!


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