by Matt Gibson and Erin Marissa Russell
There are many different terms to learn about in the gardening world when it comes to seeds and it can be very confusing to separate the different types of seeds, especially if you are new to gardening. You’ve probably heard the words, “organic,” and, “heirloom,” in reference to seeds, but what is the difference between the two? Which one is better? Can you get seeds that are both heirloom and organic? Questions like these are just scratching the surface of what beginning gardeners need to know about growing plants from seed, and we have compiled the answers to these questions and more in this article.
Before purchasing seeds to cultivate in your own garden, it’s important to learn all about the different types of seeds that are available to you and what makes each of them unique. Aside from heirloom and organic seeds, there are also hybrid and open pollinated seed varieties available.
Heirloom seeds are passed down from generation to generation using open pollination. This means that the changes that have occurred in the development of heirloom plants are characteristics that have happened naturally over the course of time. To be considered an heirloom variety, the species of plant must be at least 40 years in the making. Over years and years of cultivation, heirloom plant varieties develop resistance to certain diseases and pests and learn to thrive in particular climates.
Heirloom seeds can be purchased at nurseries and garden centers near you, but the best way to get your hands on heirloom seeds is through local seed exchanges. This way, you are getting heirloom cultivars that have become better suited to growing in your area.
Heirloom seeds can be saved and planted year after year. They are never hybrids or GMO’s. Hybrids are crosses between different heirloom cultivars. GMO seeds are genetically modified in a laboratory for large scale production. Generally speaking, heirlooms have superior taste, quality, and hardiness when compared to all other seed types. Most often, heirloom seeds will have been grown under organic conditions, though this is not always the case.
Organic seeds used to be all the rage, now the most highly-coveted seeds are heirloom. Not to say that organic seeds are no longer popular, but heirloom varieties are highly sought after by experienced gardeners.
Most seeds are cultivated organically, as seed farmers tend to care more about the seeds themselves than the fruit their plants produce. However, seed farmers that grow their seeds and plants organically do not have the financial freedom to pay organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to certify that their seeds are chemical free.
Organic seeds have strong genetic makeup, as plants that have to fend off pests naturally without the aid of pesticides are generally stronger, more resilient, and better suited to thrive, even in adverse conditions. Because seed farmers have to pay a premium to certify their seeds are organic, seed costs for organic seeds are also going to be higher.
In the United States, seeds must be certified through the USDA even though other certifications are more reliable. In order to be certified by the USDA, seed farmers must follow specific growing guidelines, including using only natural fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides, allowing no chemicals whatsoever to be used on their plants. Organic seeds also cannot be genetically modified in any way. They can, however, be hybrids, which means that they have been cross pollinated artificially with other varieties in order to get the best attributes out of each variety.
The certification process starts with inspections of seed processing facilities and farm fields, as well as detailed record keeping and soil and water testing. The USDA decides what criteria must be met and what standards must be followed in order to receive an organic label. Certifying agencies such as CCOF, QAI, and OCAI verify that the grower is meeting the standards set by the USDA.
Open-Pollinated & Hybrid Seeds
Open pollinated are seeds which produce plants that are pollinated by insects, birds, wind, or other natural means. Seeds of open-pollinated plants will produce new generations of plants and may result in plants that are drastically different genetically, because the pollen source is unknown and breeding is uncontrolled.
Hybrid seeds are manually produced by cross-pollination. Hybrids are bred specifically to improve certain desired characteristics of the resulting plants. Hybrids are created to produce plants with greater uniformity, improved color, disease resistance, better yield, etc. Seeds from the first generation of hybrid plants will not likely produce true copies, and should not be saved. If you like growing hybrids, you will need to buy new seeds for each planting. Though hybrids are created in a laboratory, they are not genetically engineered or altered by any other means than by cross-pollination.
What Type Of Seed Should You Buy?
Gardening organically and gardening with heirlooms are birds of a feather. Many heirlooms were introduced before synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were created. The heirloom label doesn’t guarantee that the plants will be organic or that no chemicals were used in the growing process, but it is likely that heirloom seeds, even without the organic label, are chemical-free. However, if you are worried about toxins, especially if you are growing produce, seeds with an organic label are a better choice.
If you are after specific desired plant characteristics, such as good production, disease resistance, better storage capabilities, buy and grow hybrid seeds. If you want to save seeds for future use, purchase open-pollinated seeds or heirloom varieties. One of the biggest upsides to saving seeds is that your plants will be acclimated to local weather and growing conditions and will be hardier than seed grown elsewhere.
As you look through seed catalogs, take time to read the descriptions or scan for words like heirloom and open-pollinated. Read about the history of heirlooms. Hybrids often have F1 in the name or below it. The descriptions should say what plants were crossed to create the hybrid variety, as well as any desirable traits, such as disease resistance. Seed catalogs should give you lots of choices. First, figure out what you need, then do some research and make an educated purchase.
Regular Gardeners Don’t Have to Worry About GMO Seeds
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. GMO seeds are created in a laboratory for large scale agricultural use. Contrary to popular belief, there is no chance of accidentally acquiring GMO seeds for use in home gardens, so there is no reason to worry about getting your hands on a small amount of GMO seeds. They are usually very expensive and only available for purchase in large quantities.
Farmers choose GMO seeds for a variety of reasons, as they are modified to have certain desirable traits. Some GMO seeds are made to be drought tolerant, some are created to produce seedless varieties, and others to be resistant to certain pests and diseases.
Common Questions and Answers About Heirloom Versus Organic Seeds
Are all heirloom seeds open pollinated?
Yes, all heirloom seeds are open pollinated. However, not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom varieties. When seeds are open pollinated, that means that the pollination process has been allowed to occur naturally. Pollination of open pollinated seeds may happen due to self pollination or the activities of birds, insects, via wind, or by other natural means. One of the benefits of open pollinated seeds is that they produce plants that are “true to type.” When a plant is said to be true to type, it will be very much like the parent plant and share many of the parent plant’s traits.
Are heirloom seeds better?
Whether heirloom seeds are better than conventional seeds depends on what qualities a gardener is looking for from their plants. Unlike hybrid or GMO seeds, heirloom seeds produce plants that are true to type, meaning the plants are very similar to the parent plant, so it’s easy for gardeners to predict what the next generation of plants will be like.
Many gardeners report that heirloom seeds produce crops that have better flavor than crops from seeds that are not heirloom varieties. Food grown from heirloom seeds is also often more nutritious than food that is not an heirloom variety.
Heirloom seeds also tend to cost less than other options on the market, making them a more economical choice for budget-conscious gardeners. And because heirloom plants are less uniform than other types, the fruit and vegetables from heirloom seeds also tend not to ripen all at the same time. That means gardeners who plant heirloom seeds are provided with a consistent supply of ripe fruit and vegetables instead of having one huge harvest that gives them more than they can possibly eat at once.
Are heirloom seeds genetically modified (GMO)?
Because heirloom seeds reproduce naturally, they are not genetically modified (GMO).
Are organic seeds better?
Whether or not organic seeds are a better choice depends on exactly what a gardener is looking for from their seeds and plants. Some gardeners feel strongly about supporting organic farmers because of the benefits to the environment that come along with organic agriculture, and purchasing organic seeds is one way to give organic farmers financial support. Organic farmers also tend to utilize sustainable farming practices, so supporting organic agriculture means supporting sustainable farming.
Gardeners who choose organic seeds can be sure that only pesticides and fertilizers that qualify as organic have been used when raising the plants, harvesting the seeds, or at any other time in the process. That’s because to qualify as organic, the seeds must come from a producer certified by the National Organic Program.
Some gardeners report that because organic seeds are harvested from plants that don’t rely on synthetic pesticides or fertilizers to thrive, they have adapted to the challenges of their growing conditions and can therefore thrive under harsher conditions, making organic seeds more likely to grow into successful and healthy plants when they’re cared for properly.
Are organic seeds GMO free?
Gardeners can rest assured that organic seeds are GMO free. In fact, the use of GMO products is prohibited for farmers who are certified as organic producers. The home gardener will likely never encounter GMO seeds, as they are only available to commercial farmers who purchase in bulk and have signed an agreement regarding how they will use the GMO seeds. The likelihood of a home gardener inadvertently planting GMO seeds is almost zero.
Are there organic pesticides?
Certain pesticides are approved for use in organic farming, and some of the pesticides approved for use in growing organic food do contain chemicals. According to Scientific American, “There are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards.” They go on to explain that pesticides used in organic agriculture come from natural sources and either are not processed or are lightly processed before being ready to use. Synthetic compounds may be approved for use in organic farming, NPR reports, “if they are relatively nontoxic combinations that include minerals or natural elements, such as copper or sulfur.” You can view the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances on the USDA website to find out which synthetic and natural substances are approved for use in organic farming.
Are there organic seeds?
Seeds are considered organic when they are grown, harvested, and processed by a producer certified by the National Organic Program in accordance with their standards. Organic seeds are either untreated or, when they are treated, treatment comes from substances approved by the USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for organic farmers. You can find organic seeds by using the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies’ Organic Seed Finder.
Are treated seeds organic?
Some organic seeds are untreated, and some organic seeds are treated with substances approved by the USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for organic farming.
Can organic have pesticides?
Some pesticides are approved by US Organic Standards for use in organic farming. Generally, substances approved for use by organic farmers are not synthetic or manmade but instead come from natural ingredients. However, not all natural substances are approved for organic farmers to use. You can learn more by reviewing the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances on the USDA website to learn about the synthetic and natural substances the USDA has approved for use in organic farming.
Can organic seeds be GMO?
Organic seeds cannot be GMO because genetically modified organisms (also called GMOs) are prohibited in organic products. Farmers who produce organic seeds cannot plant GMO seeds, feed GMO crops to their livestock, or use any GMO ingredients when making their food products. To maintain their organic certification, farmers must show that they do not use GMO products and that they protect their own crops from coming into contact with GMOs from the beginning to the end of their production procedures.
Can you save heirloom seeds?
You can save the seeds from heirloom plants so you can sow the seeds at the beginning of the next growing season. Choose healthy, productive plants to save seeds from, as the next generation of plants will reflect the characteristics of the parent plant that yielded the seeds. Do not save the seeds of plants that are weak or diseased. Allow the plants to completely mature, which means you will wait until the end of the season before collecting the seeds.
Plants that bloom are ready for seeds to be collected when flowers are faded or puffy at the top. Seeds can be collected from legumes when the pods have dried out and turned brown. Seeds that are mature enough to be collected generally change color from pale white or cream to darker brown. Let the seeds mature as long as possible on the plant. Then collect the seed and spread them on a screen in a single layer, and let them finish ripening in a safe location that is dry and has plenty of ventilation. You do not need to save the pods, if they are present—only the seeds within. If the seeds are too small to let them ripen on a screen, you can place the seed heads into a paper bag to finish drying.
Some seeds must be collected using a wet method because they are contained in fleshy fruits, such as cucumbers, melons, squash, tomatoes, and roses. To collect these seeds, scoop them out of the fruit and put them into a jar (without the lid), mixing with a small amount of warm water. Soak this mixture for two to four days, stirring daily. The viable seeds that you should collect will drop to the bottom of the jar, and bad seeds will float to the top, along with pulp and other extra plant material. Pour out the pulp, bad seeds, and water, then spread the viable seeds in a single layer on a screen or paper towel.
Whether you use the wet or dry method, when your seeds have dried, store them in an envelope or glass jar. Label the containers with the plant variety and date. Freeze these containers for two days to kill any insects they may contain, then store them somewhere cool and dry, such as in the refrigerator. Seeds are viable for three years when stored properly.
Do you need organic seeds to grow organic vegetables?
The USDA Organic Standards require farmers to use organic seeds when they are available. Organic farmers can use seeds that are not organic if no organic seed varieties are available for purchase in their region. The exceptions to this rule are edible sprouts and annual transplants, which must use organic seeds to be considered organic.
Does heirloom mean non GMO?
Heirloom seeds will never be GMO. To qualify as an heirloom variety, plants must have reproduced naturally, which is not possible for genetically modified organisms. Heirloom seeds and plants are always non GMO.
Does heirloom mean organic?
Some heirloom seeds or plants are organic, but not all heirloom seeds or plants are organic. Whether or not a plant is organic depends on its growing conditions, while heirloom seeds will remain heirloom varieties regardless of whether they are grown under organic or inorganic conditions. How an heirloom seed is raised as it grows into a plant and produces its harvest determines whether or not the resulting plant and its fruit or vegetables qualify as organic.
Does organic mean no pesticides?
Some organic plants are raised without pesticides, but not all organic plants are raised without pesticides. The USDA has approved certain pesticide ingredients to be used in organic farming. Generally, pesticides that are approved for organic use are derived from natural sources and are either not processed at all or only lightly processed. According to NPR, synthetic pesticides can be approved “if they are relatively nontoxic combinations that include minerals or natural elements, such as copper or sulfur.” The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances on the USDA website has more information on which substances (both synthetic and natural) may be used in organic farming.
How do I save my heirloom tomato seeds?
To save heirloom tomato seeds, first select the plant or plants you will collect seeds from. You should only collect seeds from the very best plants in your garden—ones that are productive and free of disease—because the next generation of plants will mirror the traits of the parent plant the seeds were collected from. Remove the seeds from ripe tomatoes and put them into a jar along with a small amount of warm water, leaving the jar uncovered. Let the seeds soak for two to four days, stirring each day.
After they have soaked, the viable seeds you should save will have fallen to the bottom of the jar, while bad seeds that should not be saved will float to the top along with the tomato pulp. Pour off the bad seeds, tomato pulp, and water, then spread the seeds you are saving in a single layer on a screen or paper towel.
Once the seeds have dried out completely, place them in a glass jar or envelope for storage. Label them clearly with the plant variety and the date. Freeze the container for two days to kill any insects that may be inside, then move them to a cool, dry location like your refrigerator. When seeds are stored properly this way, they will be viable for up to three years.
How is a seed genetically modified?
Seeds are genetically modified when new DNA is inserted into the genome of the plant cells. One way this can be done is to coat small particles of metal with the desired new DNA, then penetrate the plant cells with the metal particles. Another method of genetic modification takes advantage of certain bacteria or viruses that naturally transfer their DNA to the host organism, such as the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens. After the cell’s DNA has been altered, the modified plant cells are cultivated in tissue culture, where they are raised until they grow into mature plants. When these plants eventually produce seeds, the seeds will have the new DNA, including the modification. Altering the DNA of the plant alters its characteristics and traits, so with genetic modification, scientists can design plants to have traits that are beneficial to the crop. A plant may be genetically modified to make it resistant to a certain disease, for example, or to change the color of its blooms.
How long can you keep heirloom seeds?
Seeds have different lifespans depending on what type of plant they come from, ranging from one to four years. Refer to our Seed Life Chart for specific information on how long you can expect your heirloom seeds to last.
How long will heirloom seeds last?
How long heirloom seeds will last depends on the type of plant the seeds are for, as the seeds from some plants last longer than others. Seeds are viable for one to four years from when they are collected or purchased, depending on the variety. To find a specific estimate of how long you can expect your heirloom seeds to be viable, you can look the plant type up on our Seed Life Chart.
Is there a difference between GMO and organic?
Yes, there is a difference between GMO and organic. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” and the term is used to describe plants that have had their DNA artificially adjusted in order to develop plants that have certain traits (such as resistance to certain diseases or more bountiful harvests). The term “organic” is used to describe seeds or plants that have been produced under certain guidelines set by the USDA. Seeds and plants labeled as organic are never genetically modified, so organic products are always GMO free. You can review the USDA’s Guidelines for Certification of Organic Crops for details on what qualifies as organic.
What are non GMO seeds?
Seeds are called “non GMO” when they are not genetically modified organisms. Genetic modification is when an organism is artificially altered to change its DNA so that it displays a desired characteristic, such as resistance to a disease or blooms of a certain size or color. When seeds are non GMO, they have been produced via natural means of pollination or as hybrids (via cross-pollination of different parent plants).
What are the benefits of heirloom seeds?
There are many benefits to heirloom seeds that might cause a gardener to choose to plant heirloom varieties. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are known for having better flavor than varieties that aren’t heirlooms. The excellent flavor of heirlooms stands out because plants that have been bred for commercial benefits, such as disease resistance, large size, durability in transport, or bountiful harvests, may have sacrificed flavor in pursuit of other characteristics. Recent studies have also shown that heirloom fruits and vegetables tend to be more nutritious than their non-heirloom counterparts. Because heirloom plants are open-pollinated, gardeners can save seeds from their gardens to replant the following season with the confidence that the next generation of plants will be true to type. Locally cultivated heirloom varieties may also be resistant to diseases common in your region or able to repel insects that would otherwise plague your crops. Because heirloom plants are less uniform, your harvest is less likely to ripen all at one time, meaning you have a gradual supply of fresh fruit or vegetables instead of a sudden windfall that may be more than your family can eat, causing some to go to waste. Finally, heirlooms tend to be less expensive than non-heirloom varieties, and when gardeners save their own seeds, heirlooms become even more financially economical.
What is the difference between heirloom and heritage seeds?
There is no difference between heirloom and heritage seeds or plants—the terms are used interchangeably.
Want to learn more about heirloom versus organic seeds?
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Civil Eats covers The Great Tomato Debate: Heirlooms, Hybrids, or GMOs?
EcoWatch covers Why You Should Grow Heirloom Seeds
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Garden Myths covers Organic Seeds, Why Buy Them?
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