Hybrid, Heirloom, Organic, OP and GM Seeds: What’s the Difference?

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Robyn Jasko

Robyn Jasko › Robyn Jasko is the creator of GrowIndie.com, which is all about food independence, diy-style. She ...


As you pine over the numerous seed catalogs that have been showing up in your mailbox, it can be confusing to know exactly which types of seeds are best for your garden. Here’s a quick lowdown to deciphering the different types of seeds available and some common terms to keep in mind while picking out your varieties:

Heirloom Seeds

This is a true seed that has been around for at least 50 years, most likely a lot longer. Heirloom seeds are usually open-pollinated, meaning that wind or insects fertilize the seed. They’ll breed true to their parent plants, so if you harvest seeds and replant them you will get the same variety. Heirlooms are key to having a truly sustainable garden, since you won’t have to buy seeds every year and can actually save a ton of money this way.

Hybrid Seeds

Not to be confused with GM (genetically modified) seeds, hybrids are naturally bred for beneficial characteristics such as disease and insect resistance, new flower types, improved vitamin content in vegetables and grains, and many other characteristics. The downside with hybrids is that their seed doesn’t resemble the parent plant, so you cannot reliably save their seeds, but they are usually easier to grow since they have been bred for their favorable traits.

Organic Seeds

Organic seeds are grown, saved, and stored without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, irradiation, and biosolids in your food. Organic seeds can be heirloom and/or hybrid, but are never genetically modified. When shopping for seeds, choosing organic is definitely the safest way to go and a good way to keep GMOs and pesticides off your plate and out of your garden.

Open-Pollinated Seeds

Open-pollinated is a natural process where seeds are pollinated in an isolated area by bees or the wind, creating a next generation plant that is true to the parent plant. If an open-pollinated seed is allowed to cross-pollinate with another open-pollinated variety of the same species, the next generation seed will produce a hybrid.

Genetically Modified Seeds

Genetically Modified (GM) seeds are created when a scientist inserts genetic material from another plant or species to add a characteristic that is not naturally there. GM seeds were developed in the 1970s specifically to be resistant to Roundup—a dangerous pesticide that is produced by Monsanto, the company that patents GM crops (see the connection?). Man-made and controversial, more studies are coming out showing the irreversible health and environmental effects GM crops are having on people and animals as they enter the food supply, but until they are outlawed, we are the guinea pigs. And that’s one more reason to grow your own food.

More than 200 seed companies have taken the Safe Seed Pledge, confirming that they will not knowingly sell GM seeds to farmers and home gardeners. Check your favorite seed catalog to see if they have taken the pledge, or go here to check out the full list.

When shopping for seeds, choosing organic is definitely the safest way to go and a good way to keep GMOs and pesticides off your plate and out of your garden.

Heirlooms: Variety, Flavor and Nutrition

Of all the types of seeds, heirloom seeds are my favorite to grow for so many reasons. First, the variety is unmatched. From purple carrots to striped beans, heirloom varieties offer an amazing array of flavors, sizes, textures and colors just not found in your supermarket. Why grow the standard red when you can grow a tasty Green Zebra, a Cherokee purple, or the majestic 2-pound Pineapple tomato with its tie-dye hues? Heirlooms also have an amazing flavor that is unlike anything you’ll find in conventional produce. These old world varieties remind us of what vegetables used to taste like before the mass industrialization of food came into play.

According to the article in National Geographic, 90% of the vegetable varieties within the US are now extinct—growing heirlooms are a great way to preserve the flavor, sustainability and legacy of these unique varieties for generations to come.

Are you already picking out your seeds for this year’s garden?

Photo Credit: Robyn Jasko