Hybrid seeds aren’t always bad and this post is going to tell you the differences between types of seed available to buy and grow to help you choose the right plants for your garden.

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Find out about different types of seed to grow and make informed seed purchases. Click to find out about heirloom, hybrid and open pollinated seeds or pin it for later


Busting Seed Misinformation!

what are heirloom seeds

I want you to understand that I care deeply about gardening organically away from pesticides.  My use of Sluggo, the organic gardening bug control is a last resort in the garden and I grow almost exclusively heirloom plants.

I’m passionate about doing what’s right and keeping people safe, indeed my career outside of this blog is to keep consumers safe by ensuring a lab is held to strict laws and regulatory standards for testing medicines and dietary supplements.

I was listening to a summit in 2017 where the speaker was talking about how bad hybrid seeds were and how they were GMO and in the pockets of the agrochemical industry they also talked about heirloom is “just how God made them” and the most natural of seeds. Well, hybridization happens naturally but we’ll get to that later on.

I’m a scientist, a gardener, a permaculture designer and I’m here to break misinformation about seed types available to buy and grow because I believe that videos like the one I was listening to back in 2017 are wrong and are not providing the facts so you as gardeners can make informed choices about the seeds you buy.


What Types of Seed are Available to Gardeners?

There are typically 3 types of seed available: heirloom, hybrid and GMO.  Other terms you might hear are open-pollinated, hand-pollinated, improved, F1, OP, organic and you may also see ® or ™ next to names of the cultivar or variety.

Grab yourself a cup of tea because I’m going to explain all of this below starting with what I grow the most: heirloom.

what types of seeds are there

What Are Heirloom Seeds?

what is the difference between heirloom and GMO seeds

My first introduction to heirloom seeds was helping Big Grandad sow some French Breakfast radishes into the raised beds he made in the garden out of 55 gallon blue drums he had sawn in half making two round beds.  I remember it like yesterday and I must of been about 6 at the time. A few weeks later I helped to pull the radishes that were ready then help Granny make a salad in the kitchen standing on a little stool so I could reach the kitchen counter.  My encounters with heirlooms continued with Gardener’s Delight cherry tomatoes fresh off the vine, Painted Lady runner beans and so much more.

Big Grandad and Granny are both gone now but they nurtured a fascination with old heritage varieties of plants and plant breeding in me and just like just my Granny’s Granny’s china which sits proudly on my dresser, heirlooms are something which is saved and passed on to the next generation.  

Heirloom seed is seed from a plant that has been passed from one generation to another.  They are carefully grown away from other varieties of the same plant and are saved because they are considered valuable for reasons such as superior flavor, high productivity, hardiness or adaptability to the area they are grown.

heirloom vs GMO seed

Heirloom seeds and plants often have a story behind them and many have been grown and saved for many years or discovered in weird and wonderful places like Great Aunt Dorothy’s shed in a biscuit tin or in caves in clay pots, behind walls and in tombs.

Most heirlooms are old and often pre-date WWII and have been saved and selected because they have the best flavor and production in the garden. Typically the best producing, most flavorful, and/or most dependable varieties have made the selection throughout the years and had their seed saved year after year. 

Heirlooms are usually true to type meaning they are the same as the parent plants.  This is done my careful growing away from similar plants to prevent cross pollination so only the heirloom is pollinated with the heirloom.  For example, I have a patch of heirloom peas that are growing and I want to save the seed to grow the same type the next year.  I only want the flowers of this heirloom to be pollinated by pollen from this heirloom pea so that the same variety will grow in the saved seed the next year.

If this doesn’t make sense to you, think about dog breeds.  Let’s use a Border Collie as an example (since I have one sat next to me). 

what is a open pollinated seed

To get a Border Collie you need to breed a male and a female Border Collie to get puppies which are also Border Collies like their parents.

Heirloom plants and produce sell well at farmers markets making them great for home gardens and market gardens. 

Some widely available heirlooms include:

  • Purple Cherokee Tomatoes
  • Black Beauty Zucchini
  • Windsor Broad Beans (Fava Beans)
  • Painted Lady Runner Beans
  • French Breakfast Radishes
  • Gardener’s Delight Tomatoes

What Are Open Pollinated Seeds?

what is a heirloom seed

The term open pollinated or OP is often used hand in hand or interchangeable with heirloom seeds but it is important to know that open pollinated and heirloom are not the same thing.  Heirlooms must be open pollinated but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms.

Open pollination is what allows gardeners to have heirloom plants but it also allows for cross pollination of varieties in the same plant species normally, this is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, self or other natural mechanisms.

In nature, there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individual flowers and plants by insects, birds or wind.  As a result, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This diversity causes a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plant genetics to change with each generation and the plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate each year.

If pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will remain true to type year after year as discussed in the heirloom seed section above.

urban homesteading

What Are Hand Pollinated Seeds?

Hand pollination is a human or mechanical method of pollinating flowers usually using a fine, soft paintbrush. Hand pollination can be required if there are too few pollinating insects available or to breed plant varieties. 

Traditional plant breeding will take pollen from one plant and add it to the female parts of another variety for example, I want to try breeding tomatoes in my 2018 gardening experiments and trials.  As such, I want to try crossing a paste variety with a flavorful black or purple variety to produce a rich tasting paste variety.  I would do this by removing the male parts from flowers on one variety of tomato then taking the pollen laden male parts off another tomato variety and touching them to the female flower parts of the first tomato variety thereby pollinating by hand.

What Are Organic Seeds?

what is organic seed

Organic seeds are grown following organic growing methods on land which as been certified as organic by an inspector of the certifying body such as the USDA, QAI, Oregon Tilth or The Soil Association.  Typically GMO seeds may not be used in organic agricultural methods but this is dependent on the association certifying the farm.

Seeds may be certified as organic even if they are hybrid, open pollinated or heirloom but they must be grown and certified to the defined standards by the certifying associations and may only be labeled as organic if they are certified.

Typically it takes 3 years of soil sampling and inspection of the land, records and practices of the farm before they may be certified.

There's so much misinformation about hybrid seeds. Click to find out more about hybrid seeds and other seeds available to gardeners or pin it and save for later

What Are Hybrid Seeds?

what are open pollinated seeds

Hybridization happens naturally.  Hybridization of seed is a natural process which occurs through random crosses of varieties of a species, when it done commercially to deliberately breed desired traits it is usually (but not always) labelled as F1.  In the seed buying world, hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed by human intervention.

Hybrids happen when different varieties or similar species are pollinated but sometimes, the crosses which happen are sterile and cannot reproduce.  Other times, the crosses are viable and can reproduce.  Big Grandad accidentally crossed cucumbers with gherkins one year when he grew both in the conservatory and some bumblebees got in and pollinated all the flowers.  The plants grown from those cross pollinated plants were so spiny they could have been attached to a pole and used as a medieval morning star weaponry in a reenactment festival!

Let’s go back to the dog analogy again and let’s use my other dog Teddy as an example. 

what is a hybrid seed

He is a Border Collie crossed with a Newfoundland, he’s a mixture of both of those parents; he’s taller than a regular Border Collie but smaller than a Newfoundland, he has an undercoat love of water and webbed feet of the Newfoundland and the long black and white fur of a rough Border Collie.  He’s still a dog but has these different features which were probably dominant in his parents.

What is an F1 Hybrid?

The first generation of a hybridized plant cross is called F1.  These tends to grow better and produce higher yields than the parent varieties due to a phenomenon known as ‘hybrid vigor’. 

The F stands for filial or generation.  The number after the F indicates the generation after the initial crossing the seed comes from. The further along the generations you go (i.e. the higher the number) the more stable the hybrid is and it its less likely to revert back to one of the parents.  Hybrid seeds can be stabilized and become open-pollinated varieties, by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many years.

To create a hybrid traditional breeding methods or hand pollination are used that involve the cross-pollination of two parent varieties that were selected for specific traits such as disease resistance or they produced early fruit. 

In the commercial world, hybrid seed must be produced by the seed producer each year by crossing inbred plant parents. These parents are used because they express characteristics uniformly, and this uniformity is also seen in the F1 hybrid plants they produce.

what types of seeds are there

The F2 (second generation after the initial cross)plants that are grown from seeds saved from F1 hybrid plants, will not be uniform.  These seeds from the F2 are often hugely different as a result of genetic segregation and diversity which may be sterile seed or plants, delicate or inferior plants or strong varieties when grown out later.

F1 hybrid plants are usually patented and/or trademarked.  You can see this if there is a ® or ™ after the name of the variety or a patent number.

Some widely grown hybrid plants and new hybrids available include:

  • Sun Gold Tomatoes
  • Jedi Peppers
  • Bright Lights Swiss Chard
  • Polar Bear Pumpkin
  • Cabernet Red Onion
  • Ripbor Kale
  • Teddy Bear Sunflower
  • Sugar Cube Melon
  • Pluot
  • Grapefruit
  • Clementines
  • Seedless Watermelon


What Are Improved Seeds?

The word “Improved” may be seen on a seed packet next to the variety name.  It means that the seed producer took a variety and made it better through cross pollination to provide more dependable results in a trait such as yield or germination.


What Are GMO Seeds?

what seeds to grow

Firstly, let’s get something straight; at the time of writing this post, GMO seeds and plants are not available to home gardeners.  No vegetable plants or seeds that you purchase to grow can be GMO, if you are still concerned, buy seed from reputable retailers who have signed the non-GMO Safe Seed Pledge.

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism and are produced in a laboratory.  They are plants whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technologies. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.

GMO plants made using DNA from completely different species and organisms give different traits such as resistance to herbicides and acceptance of chemical fertilizers or fighting pests and disease.

The production of GMO plants is expensive and there is no financial return for the companies which produce them in selling the seed to home gardeners.  These plants are designed and created for large scale agriculture targetting corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, papaya, squash and others like alfalfa and sugar beet. All of the GMO varieties are patented and protected by trademarks.

Find out more at the Non-GMO Project.

Colored Seeds

Sometimes in a seed packet, the seeds are dyed different colors.  This does not mean they are GMO or treated.  Seeds which are coated to deter slugs or aid germination are always labeled as treated.

The color on the seed is to aid the seed producer in packaging the varieties, especially if there are mixed varieties in a pack.  For example, I bought a packet of scallop squashes which had different colored squash fruit in there.  The seeds were dyed red and green to show the green and yellow varieties in the packet.

If you are still reading at this point, I hope I have cleared up some seed myths and you are empowered to buy varieties you want to grow without any worries.

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Find out all about heirloom seeds, hybrid seeds, open pollinated seeds and GMO seeds. Click to find out about the types of seeds to grow or pin it for later

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