Understanding seed descriptions

They're so small, but not so simple. Seeds seem as though they should be easy to buy, but there is actually a lot to know.

There's treated and untreated seed, referring to the use of materials and processes to reduce the incidence of bacteria and diseases that are carried by the seed to the next generation of plants. There are organic, ecologically grown, and conventional seeds. What’s this about patented varieties? And how do we sort out discussions of germination rates, disease-resistance, and performance under various weather conditions?

But above all, visitors to the world of seeds find plenty of reference to the industry’s hottest topics: Open-pollinated, heirloom, hybrid, and genetically engineered.

For some, the quest for heirloom, open-pollinated seeds is close to a religion. Open-pollinated seeds come from two parent plants of the same species and are genetic descendants of the parents. They allow seed savers to avoid annual repurchase. They can be relied upon to reproduce the same plant. But above all, open-pollinated varieties are prized for flavor, color, or scent—or some combination of those or other characteristics.

And what’s all this talk about heirlooms? When open-pollinated strains are in continuous cultivation for 50 or more years, they are considered heirlooms.

But even as these seeds inspire seed savers, open-pollinated types sometimes present gardeners with dilemmas. These seeds are sometimes highly susceptible to diseases and insects or have other tendencies that make them harder to maintain.

Enter the hybrids—“children” of two related parent species, deliberately selected and crossed for increased sturdiness, longevity, beauty or other features.

Among tomatoes, for instance, hybrids are often created for disease or insect resistance.

Hartford’s New England Seed offers 50 tomato varieties, including open-pollinated, heirloom and hybrid. President Ted Willard says, “People want heirlooms,” he says. “But sometimes I think they really want the taste of an heirloom and the modern breeding characteristics of a hybrid.”

As for genetic engineering, we home seed buyers seemingly have little to fear. “I’m not aware of any genetically engineered varieties available to the home grower market,” says Willard, whose family has been in the seed business since the 1890s. (Author’s note: Accidental crosses with genetically engineered plants are a controversial topic for another day.)

There are many trends affecting seed companies today, not least of which are crop failures due to weather and the decline of pollinators. But even as some forces work against it, the humble seed has garnered a passionate following even in this age of electronic entertainment and retail consolidation.

Whether your quest is taste, variety, beauty, scent, cost savings, heritage, or all of the above, there's a seed packet with your name on it. 

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PDF icon The Art of Picking Seeds340.64 KB