From the ground up: Pick types of seeds wisely

Published: March 2 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:03 am in

The range of choices gardeners have when buying seeds and plants for their home gardens includes options such as organic or heirloom. While these are not unfamiliar terms, they have a specific meaning, as do others on packets or plant labels: hybrid and open-pollinated and genetically modified organism. Learn to sort through these terms so you can buy confident of what you are getting, and eventually eating.


Organic is a labeling term that indicates a food or other agricultural product has been produced through U.S. Department of Agriculture approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used on a product labeled organic. These restrictions must have been exercised for at least three years before (seed) harvest. (For more information, visit


Heirloom means that a plant or its seeds have been passed down from generation to generation without a trade name or pedigree. While you can find some heirloom seeds from commercial seed companies, they are often found and in greater variety from specialty companies. In Decorah, we have Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization that exists exclusively for the purpose of preserving and propagating heirloom species. Find out more at


Hybrid results when specific parent plants are cross pollinated in a controlled environment. Hybrids are often designated F1, first generation, in seed catalog descriptions, which is desirable, as most hybrid plants will not produce a seed that you can expect to reproduce in like form. Rather, those seeds will often revert to the form of one of its parent plants. Hybrid seeds and plants are consistent performers.


Open-pollinated plants/seeds, unlike hybrids, are pollinated naturally by insects and wind. Varieties have stable traits that persist, so subsequent generations are similar to their parents. Seeds can be saved from year to year; heirloom varieties are always open pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.


GMO stands for genetically modified plants. GMO is different from hybrid in that it has had a different plant or organism inserted into its DNA, which alters the individual characteristics (protein) in the plant. GMO is an issue for large-scale farmers now but not the home gardener, although it has become a significant consumer issue. To date, no scientific evidence has determined GMO foods to be unsafe.

Linn County Master Gardeners are available by phone to answer questions, at the Hortline at (319) 447-0647, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. Lori Klopfenstein is a Linn County Master Gardener.

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