Start Off Strong with the Right Seeds

By Chris Bond
Published: January 1, 2017 | Last updated: August 6, 2018 04:56:21
Key Takeaways

Did you know that heirloom seeds are not by definition organic? Or that hybridized crops do not necessarily pass along their traits through their seed? If you’re considering starting a garden from seed this year, you’ll need to source the right ones for your application. Doing so successfully starts with a guide to seed-buying lingo.

When faced with the multitude of choices that exist in the world of seeds, things can get quite overwhelming. Fear not! The world of seed buying can be easily navigated by understanding a few key terms.


What Seed Terms Mean



Hybrid – A hybrid plant is one that resulted from the cross of two or more different varieties of plants. This is done for numerous reasons, but with the goal of producing a plant that has a host of presumably desirable traits. They could be traits as superficial as brighter colors of fruits or foliage, or more practical traits such as cold tolerances. Hybridization is not the same thing as genetically modifying a plant; it has been done for thousands of years to produce crops that yield more, survive in colder temperatures, or are more resistant to diseases.


Hybridized crops do not necessarily pass along their traits through their seed. Think of them like mules. Mules are hybrid animals resulting from the cross between a horse and a donkey, but are unable to reproduce. Hybrid plants may or may not be able to reproduce, but they will not pass along traits that are exactly like their own; rather, they will pass along unpredictable traits that belonged to their parentage. Hybrids that result from the first generation of a cross are known as F1 hybrids. In the previous example, the mule is an F1 hybrid. The progeny of F1 hybrids are known as F2 hybrids. They are not carbon copies of their parents and are generally not desired in the plant world, because just like a box of chocolates…well, you know the rest. Seeds of F1 hybrids need to be obtained each year. The word ‘hybrid’ does not connote anything relating to organic, conventional, or GMO.

Open-pollinated seed – Unlike hybrid seeds, open-pollinated seeds will produce plants with the same traits as its parents. These are plants that were pollinated by natural mechanisms such as wind, rain, bees and other insects, or even with help from man. Open-pollinated seeds conserve genetic diversity, as they are not the result of crosses coordinated by breeders. All crops were originally open-pollinated crops before being cultivated by man. Open-pollinated seeds are not necessarily organic.

Heirloom seed – By definition, heirloom seed must be open-pollinated. Not all open-pollinated seed is from heirloom plants, but all heirloom seed is developed from open-pollination. Furthermore, an heirloom plant is a plant that has been cultivated for at least 50 years and whose origin can be traced. There is no consensus on how old a plant must be to be considered “heirloom,” other than more than 50. Some seed producers and organizations declare 75 years as the standard for heirloom certification, others 100 years. Some plants, such as flower bulbs from Holland, have been continually cultivated for well over 500 years. Heirloom seeds are not by definition organic.

Organic seed – Organic seed is seed that is procured from plants that are certified organic by third-party organizations. The seeds were produced from plants that received no artificial fertilizers or pesticides in a manner consistent with organic production. There are numerous statewide, national, and international organizations that confer certified organic status to producers. Organic seed may be from heirloom, hybrid or other classifications, but must not have come from any plant produced by non-organic means.

Non-GMO/GMO seed – GMO, or genetically modified organism, seed is seed that has been altered using DNA. This is done in a lab setting to give seeds specific traits that they would not otherwise obtain through hybridization or other natural means. Sometimes referred to as “Frankenseed”, these seeds are patented by their developers and are often modified to be resistant to the affects of other products manufactured by the same company.

GMOs are highly contentious and controversial around the world. In many municipalities and regions of both North America and Europe, GMO seed has either been outright banned or is required to be clearly labeled as such so that the consumer can decide about acquiring the seeds or consuming products made from crops that were raised from GMO seeds. The manufacture, breeding, and labeling of GMO seeds is still a debatable topic and will likely be unresolved for many years. A seed packet bearing any language on its label referring to being non-GMO is seed that has not been collected or raised from plants that were genetically modified. It does not confer organic status to the seed, only that its origins are not traced back to a laboratory.

Certified Seed – Certified seed can mean any number of things, depending on the criteria of the certifying agency. In general, it means that the seed has been found through testing of some sort to be free of major diseases or pests. These results are obtained through a third party that analyzes plants growing out of the seed being trialed. It does not implicitly guarantee that the seeds in your hand are 100 per cent free from insect or disease, only that plants from the same lot were found to be free from them. The two most common pathogens agencies look out for are bacterial ring rot and root rot nematodes.

Other certification may refer the origin of the seed in regards to its certified heritage or the conditions in which the plant that the seed was gleaned from was cultivated. It could also refer to the status and treatment of the workers involved in the cultivation and collection of that seed. There are numerous legitimate seed-certifying agencies, so it is worth a quick online search to learn what exactly a particular certification by a particular organization means exactly.

Characteristics of Healthy Seed

Regardless of the origin or certified status of seeds, you want them to be healthy. Even certified organic, heirloom seed is useless to you if it has not been stored properly or is too old. Here are a few things you should keep in mind to ensure that you are using high-quality seeds.

Storage – Whether storing seed yourself from plants that you have collected seeds from or purchasing from a reputable source, seed should not be stored under warm or moist conditions. Seed is best stored in dark, cool and dry conditions. Note that seed does not come packaged in clear or see-through packaging. Keep this in mind if you plan to store seeds in areas that are prone to moisture, such as many basements. Seed should also not be stored in the open such as on a countertop or windowsill. This is fine if you are about to sow them, but is not effective for long-term storage.

Age – Age is a tricky metric with seeds, but in general you should always use seed that was collected from the previous season. The older the seed is, the less viable it is and the more that needs to be used to account for the reduced performance. This does not mean that seed older than one year old should be automatically thrown out; it means you should not expect the same performance per seed as younger stock.

Of course, there are always exceptions. If you live in a climate with a shorter growing season, you may be better served by using slightly older seed, as it tends to mature quicker than younger seed, though often at the expense of higher yields. In nature, seed can lay dormant for many years before germinating. This is not the normal cycle for the types of annual crops that most gardeners grow. Most food and flower crops that are widely cultivated are those that spring forth from the most recent season’s seed drop.

Texture – Healthy and viable seeds should not break when squeezed or feel sponge-like. They should be firm, plump (for their respective species) and have a hard casing. Any seed that is “squishy” or otherwise pliable should be discarded; it is likely diseased or very old.

Size – Size is also a consideration with seed. Less is more. It is rare that you will obtain an exact seed count when buying a package of seeds, generally only the weight is reported on the packaging. If given the choice between “X” number of seeds per ounce or gram and some number less than “X” per the exact same weight, always go with the lesser amount. It may seem counterintuitive or that you are getting less for your money, but larger seeds (of the same species), more often than not, yield more vigorous plants than plants grown from smaller seeds.

Additional Considerations

After you have weighed your options and settled on your chosen varieties, there are a couple of things you should consider doing.

Take note – Each packet of commercially sold seed should have a lot number or some other identifying code. Write it down somewhere or make sure to save the physical seed packet. You may need this information if you should need to contact the seed company for any reason or if any kind of recall is issued.

Stay sanitized – As you begin to sow your carefully selected seeds, remember that sanitation is important. Clean all your tools and containers before seeding and keep them clean during your work with seeds. If your seeds should have various bacteria or other pathogens, you don’t want to unknowingly spread this to your other seeds.

Save for later – Once your seeds have yielded you the awesome plants, flowers, or fruits you were hoping for, consider saving some of their seeds for future use. Make sure to select the seeds with the same characteristics as those that you originally bought, remembering that if they were hybrid seeds, they will not produce a plant with the exact same characteristics that may have attracted you to it in the first place. Save heirloom and open-pollinated seeds for the best results and to help preserve the variety’s genetic characteristics for future generations.


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Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional

Profile Picture of Chris Bond

Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.

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