I get a lot of questions about heirlooms and hybrids, buying and saving and starting seeds, so I’m providing a few simple working definitions for some terms you might see when shopping for garden seeds and starting plants, along with some further notes of possible interest.
Open-Pollinated (O.P.): a stable variety that breeds true from seed. Not a hybrid.
Heirloom (H.L.): An heirloom is by definition an open-pollinated variety–one that has been around for one hundred years or more.
Hybrid (F1): F1 hybrids are seeds from two parent plants of the same species that have been cross-pollinated by plant breeders. The F1 hybrids you find in garden seed packs are, in almost any case NOT genetically modified. The reason for this is mostly because GMO companies spend a lot of money on developing varieties, and selling a few packs of garden seed to home growers doesn’t really pay.
Many home gardeners are growing their own food precisely to avoid this kind of stuff. However, it’s not a bad idea to check up on the GMO policy and parent company of your seed supplier–NK Seeds is owned by Syngenta, for example. That doesn’t mean their garden seeds are genetically modified, but it does mean your purchase may be going to support GMOs.
Organic Seed: Organic seed is simply seed produced in accordance with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) rules. Hybrid seed can still be organic seed, as long as it follows the rules. What organic seed can never be is genetically modified (unless the NOP rules are changed to accommodate GMOs, and that’s pretty unlikely).
Seed grown under organic cultivation at a non-USDA certified farm cannot technically be called organic seed. That means the seed I grow and save is not technically organic, but then I’m not trying to sell it on a large scale anyhow.
Consider also that if you want to get into technicalities, all garden plants are hybrids–that is, they didn’t spring fully formed from the forehead of the Garden Goddess. OP and heirloom varieties are simply well-stabilized hybrids.
Even open-pollinated and heirloom varieties can show some variation in their offspring. Too, if you’re planning on saving seeds from your open-pollinated or heirloom varieties, you might want to do a little reading on how to keep the strain pure (if you’re into that). Once you plant those seeds in your garden, they can get into all kinds of sexual mischief with others of their species and their kids will reflect that.
However, variations in open-pollinated plant offspring can allow for re-selection and improvement of a favorite variety over the years if you’re into seed-saving. Currently, I am improving (for my purposes) an heirloom Red Pear tomato for thicker necks and better crack-resistance simply by continually saving seeds from those fruits and plants that display the desirable trait.
You can save seeds from F1 hybrids. It’s just that their differing parentage may cause their kids to revert to a number of traits different than what the hybrid seed produced. For example, the “volunteers” (plants that sprouted from last year’s dropped fruits) of my Sun Gold F1 cherry tomatoes yielded fruits of differing size, color, and flavor.
Direct Seed: This means to put the seeds directly into the garden soil. If your packet says something like “sow as soon as the ground can be worked,” that’s an indication to direct-seed.
Transplant: Your packet may also say “sow in flats or pots.” This generally means to start the plants inside.
Days to Maturity: Depends on the preferred method of planting, usually indicated on the pack. If it’s a direct-seeding scenario, then the days to maturity is usually from the time the plant germinates–or pops above the soil surface. If the preferred method is tranplanting, the days to maturity is usually from the time you set the plants out in the garden (having followed their guidelines for when to start your seeds indoors).
Some crops that are usually direct-seeded can be transplanted. Head lettuce can be started indoors and transplanted–this isn’t as good an idea for leaf lettuce, as you’ll want to sow it much more thickly for ease of cutting. Corn can also be transplanted, which can get you ahead of the ear worm cycle.
Generally speaking, root crops such as carrots and beets should not be transplanted–though celeriac is an exception, as it’s such a long-season crop. When transplanting root crops, it’s important not to disturb the roots too much–since that’s the part you want to grow big for eating.
Some crops that are usually tranplanted can also be direct-seeded, but this can present a problem in shorter-season climates. The idea behind starting tomatoes, peppers, etc. inside is to be able to get a good crop before the frost.
If you think of anything I’ve missed here, feel free to mention it in the comment section and I’ll add on. This post is merely intended to be a simple de-mystifying guide.