So you’re thumbing through your seed catalogs, or you’re visiting your local nursery or garden center and you start to notice that some of the seed packets say “organic” and some of them do not. Wh
Have you noticed that from time to time in the world of gardening, technological advancements distract gardeners away from some of the more traditional and deeply rooted gardening practices? While the cultivation of crops is far more efficient than ever thanks to scientific advancements in gardening over the years, there is a growing trend to return to what many consider a more quality, natural way of growing. The use of organic seeds is one such practice.
What are organic seeds?
Once upon a time, all seeds were “organic.” Gardeners would plant their seeds in the springtime each year, and at harvest time, a portion of their crop was set aside for seed for the next growing season. Seeds were dried and stored year after year.
Neighbors shared and swapped seeds. Everyone had a general idea of where their seeds came from, what variety of fruit, vegetable, herb or flower their seeds represented, and growing was as simple and predictable as growing can be. Years before heirloom seeds gained the title of “heirloom,” they were simply organic seeds.
The world of seeds began to shift during the 1900’s. Prior to World War II, the bulk of commercial seeds that the United States relied on for large-scale use came from Europe. With blocks on imports during war time, the United States scrambled to increase its ability to self sustain in many ways. As a result, seed production in the United States boomed.
The controversy over organic
As the demand for seeds increased, farmers developed new, scientific ways to enhance, accelerate, enlarge, and increase production. Varieties of plants were selected for qualities deemed superior and cross pollinated with other varieties in labs to create more abundant, more resilient, and more attractive produce.
The methods for the proliferation of these new varieties of plants were supported by the use of synthetic insecticides and chemical fertilizers. The term for this type of farming and gardening is conventional. The result of conventional gardening is what you most often see at the grocery store. Most crops for animal feed are produced through conventional means as well.
Conventional seeds are mass produced in laboratories. Scientists in the labs produce plants that are called hybrid. Hybrid is the name given to a new plant variety that is the result of two parent plants that cross pollinate. The parent plants are different varieties from each other, so the new plant is an even different variety from them.
The seeds from hybrid plants are typically sterile, so if you extract and dry the seeds from these genetically engineered hybrid plants, the seeds usually will not bloom. Rather than relying on a stock of seeds that you have put up yourself, you must return to the store year after year to purchase more seeds. Most seeds that you can go out and buy at your local hardware store today are conventional.
The synthetic practices used for conventional gardening have raised eyebrows. Some farmers and gardeners are moving to abandon conventional methods entirely. The trend to go strictly organic is on the rise. To read more on the controversy surrounding conventional methodologies visit this Rodale page.
Today, organic seeds are seeds that are cared for and regulated under specific conditions and standards that are certified by the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program. When you purchase seeds that are certified as organic, you can expect that they have been raised and harvested in the same manner that you would if you were gathering and preserving seeds from your own garden.
An extensive list of criteria must be met to earn the organic certification. To learn more about the specific requirements for organic seed certification visit this USDA page.
Organic seeds are not as readily available as regular seeds. You usually have to look a little further than your local hardware store to find them. There are several online organic seed companies. You can also find them at your local nursery.
You should try to obtain organic seeds locally when possible. This helps to ensure that the variety you choose has been acclimated to your region. If you purchase organic seeds online, make sure the seeds are appropriate for your garden’s climate.
Organic seeds generally cost more than conventional seeds, but the cost of organic seeds is easily offset over time. Organic seeds are harvested from what are called open pollinated plants. Open pollinated plants are those that pollinate by insects, wind, or other natural means. The seeds of open pollinated plants are fertile and will usually bloom when planted.
Like farmers from hundreds of years ago, when you plant organic seeds, you can set aside a portion of your homegrown harvest to extract seeds from. You can dry and save your seeds for the next growing season. You will not have to purchase seeds again the next season if you choose to save your seeds. For a how-to on saving seeds, Mother Earth News has a great guide.
There are many organizations dedicated to boosting the availability of organic seeds through networks of gardeners and farmers. The organizations have guidelines and standards that must be followed to preserve their status as certified organic. Members grow crops from seeds they have acquired through their organization such as Seed Savers Exchange, and after harvest, they return a percentage of seed.
Do you have to start with organic seeds to grow organically?
There is some debate over whether you have to use organic seeds to grow organically. Unless you have set out to become a certified organic gardener, most agree that you can be an organic gardener without beginning with organic seeds.
Organic gardening supports the use of natural fertilizers like rich soil and compost. Pests are eradicated without the use of chemicals. Your organically grown tomato may be quite misshapen compared to a genetically engineered specimen grown under conventional conditions, but that’s what makes it beautiful. Not to mention far more tasty than the store-bought version.
You can practice these organic gardening methods whether you buy your seeds from a hardware store or from an organic seed distributor. While conventional seeds are here to stay, organic seed use is making a comeback.
On a small scale, the greatest benefit of going organic with your seed choice is that you can save the seeds year after year. Some gardeners love to be free from having to purchase seeds every spring, especially when they find a variety of plant that they adore. Learn more on organic seed commercial trends at Mother Earth News.
Self reliance is an objective for many gardeners today, and organic seeds encourage that. Heirloom seeds are often certified organic. If you are interested in heirloom varieties, you are heading in the open pollinated, organic seed direction.
Organic seeds are a great goal to strive towards as an individual gardener. For gardening success in the future, it is important to carry forward traditions from the past. The preservation of some varieties of plants is rewarding. To participate in agricultural diversity is important. But to dismiss conventional seeds and methods altogether requires a high level of commitment that may not be possible for you. And that’s OK.
Creative Commons Flickr photo courtesy of Suzie’s Farm