Know Your Seeds: Organic, Heirloom, Hybrids, and GMO

Cold is in the air but it’s almost time for my favorite gardening activity. What might that be, you may ask? Our gardens are currently cleared out and put to bed for the season, and winter is ahead of us. What is there to be excited about? Seeds, my friends. It’s almost seeds catalogue time! I love sitting at the kitchen table and pouring over a stack of seed catalogues.

If you also like whiling away the hours with a good catalogue, you may have noticed that not seeds have the same designations. Some are heirlooms, some are organic, some are hybrid, and some are even both. Read on to find out what each of these designations mean and how they can affect your garden.


Open vs Closed Pollination

Before we go too far, it’s important to understand the difference between open and closed pollination. An open pollinated plant is one that is pollinated by natural means; wind, birds, bees, and other natural methods. This means that the genetic material from the plant gets spread to other plants indiscriminately, and the resulting seeds can have a wide variety of genetic traits. Open pollination is great for biodiversity, but may result in plants that aren’t exactly what the farmer planned for.

It follows that closed pollination is the opposite of open pollination. Closed pollinated plants cannot be pollinated through natural means. Instead, they can only breed through human intervention.


The term organic refers to a how plants are cultivated and grow. When we talk about seeds, this means that no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other non-natural materials were applied to the plants that grew them. Organic seeds will never be genetically modified and will always certified by the USDA with a clear label. Heirloom and hybrid seeds can be organic, but GMO seeds cannot be.



When you think of an heirloom plant, you may have visions of an elderly gardener gently cradling a young seedling before tucking it into the soil on a small family farm in quaint middle of nowhere. That might be too specific of an image, but that’s what I picture when I hear the word. In many cases, it’s not too far off.

Heirloom plants are the result of small farmers who discovered an interesting variation (like a sweeter taste or better shape for storing) in one of their crops and intentionally deciding to cultivate that variety. After years of nurturing the plants, they had seeds that would breed true. Many of these farmers passed their seeds down to their children who also cultivated the prized plants. There is some disagreement as to how long a plant needs to be cultivated to be considered an heirloom, but even the most generous definition specifies fifty years.

In addition to being interesting and often more delicious, heirlooms are important because they are a source of genetic diversity. Large farms center around mono-cultures. This means that they focus on one or a few species of crops. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because there are lots of hungry mouths in the world that need be fed, and mono-cultures can be a very easy way to produce lots of food. However, mono-cultures are vulnerable to being wiped out through pests and diseases. Heirloom plants often hold the keys to resisting these problems. By growing and saving Heirloom seeds, gardeners are creating a DNA bank for the future.

Lastly, Heirloom plants will always be open pollinated. Many, though not all, will be organic as well.





A hybrid plant is one that has been intentionally, manually cross pollinated to create a new plant with desirable characteristics. Hybrid plants may produce better yields, disease resistance, be more colorful, or have other advantages.  Hybrids sometimes get a bad wrap, but they can be amazing in certain situations. These plants can be lifesavers for farmer who live in areas with major disease or pests problems. On the downside, hybrid seeds cannot be reliably saved. They aren’t “stable”, and the their offspring will often grow into plants that are not at all like the parents. While they aren’t often organic or open pollinated, they can sometimes have one or both of these characteristics.


Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs are plants that have been heavily modified through human intervention. Human beings have been genetically engineering species for as long as we have been farming and raising animals, even if we do it predominantly in the lab today. There’s a good bit of controversy on GMO’s in agriculture, but I think it’s important to make distinctions between the way GMO crops are made and how they are used. On one hand, many scientists are creating GMO crops to meet very specific needs that can’t be met with traditional organic crops. For instance, did you know that by modifying rice to produce more grain, scientists are actively working to prevent starvation in food insecure nations, or that the American Chestnut may be saved from extinction by genetic manipulation? GMO doesn’t necessarily mean unethical, just a bit scientific.

However, not all GMOs are created equal. In my opinion, the problem with these plants aren’t the genetic changes, it’s when they start being exploited for profit. All this to say, is that GMO plants should be thought of as tools. They’re only as good or bad as the hands that wield them.

To summarize, it’s important to know your seeds designation if you’re looking to plant your garden for specific purposes. If you’re looking for organic, heirloom seeds, let me recommend Botanical Interests. They have a mission to educate and wonderful products as well!

Do you have a favorite seed company for finding particular seeds? Let us know in the comments.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *