Seed primer

Good seeds, bad seeds or somewhere in between? Open-pollinated, hybrid, heirloom and genetically modified — what does it all mean?

Open-pollinated (OP) varieties breed true from seed. Seeds from a Brandywine tomato can be harvested and planted the following year for fruit that will be identical. Similar traits of production, growth habit and disease resistance are passed down.

Plant performance is generally good with open-pollinated varieties, and taste can be exceptional, though some varieties take longer to mature than hybrids, produce smaller crops and are more susceptible to some diseases.

Hybrids are varieties that result from cross-pollinating flowers from two distinct, but related, parent plants. The offspring, a combination of the two parents, brings out the best of both varieties. Often the plant has increased vigor, increased production and better disease resistance than open-pollinated seeds — more food per square foot of growing area.

The drawback is you can't save seed from a hybrid plant because it will not breed true. In seed catalogs, hybrid seeds will have "F1" after the varietal name or will simply be identified as a hybrid variety. Hybrid seed, which often requires hand pollination, is significantly more expensive than OP seed.

Heirloom seeds are the jewels of our agricultural heritage, varieties so good they have been passed down through generations of gardeners. Tomatoes, peppers, beans and more are direct descendents of pioneer gardens.

Heirloom-seed companies and seed-preservation organizations play important roles in making sure the genetics of yesterday are never lost, and that varieties are being actively propagated, so we'll always know what vegetables used to taste like before shipping and marketing became a factor.

Genetically modified organisms — GMOs — have been genetically altered, meaning DNA has been mixed and matched. Sometimes genes have been inserted from a different species altogether. Not only are the seeds not passed on to the next generation, but the escape of pollen that might contaminate native plants is a major concern worldwide.

A majority of corn and soybean products grown in the United States today are GMO crops. Fortunately for the gardener, GMO seed is not available. Only commercial farmers can grow it, and only after approval and a signed contract with the company that owns the seed.

The pro and con arguments over GMO seed varieties are profound, firmly entrenching each side with no room in between. Where do we draw the line for our seed choices? How about the middle ground?

Heirloom, open-pollinated varieties should have a place in home gardens. Old-time beans, peppers and tomatoes just can't be beat for taste, and the link to history is just another reason why we enjoy gardening.

Hybrid varieties can play a role, as well. Increased and earlier harvest, along with disease resistance, brings more food to the table. Growing bush or dwarf varieties that are well-adapted to containers and/or raised beds means people with small yards can enjoy the thrill of gardening.

Understanding the value that each type of seed offers can help gardeners develop a plan to better feed the family. Both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties can coexist in our home gardens.

If producing healthful and nutritious food is the goal, then using the best of both worlds can help to achieve it.

David James has been writing gardening stories in Southern Oregon for 35 years. Contact him at

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