How to Choose Your Seeds (And what on earth are these seed catalogs talking about?)

My furry friend supervising the seed selection.

My furry friend supervising the seed selection.

Happy new year, gardeners! After a whirlwind holiday season, it’s the most wonderful time of the year….for seed catalogs!

I get a LOT of questions about choosing seeds. Many first time and experienced gardeners feel overwhelmed by all their options. In the grocery store there might be 3-6 kinds of tomatoes, yet in the seed catalogs, there are hundreds! There might be just 1-3 kinds of cucumbers in the grocery store, yet seed catalogs often list more than 20! How do you choose?!

Let’s go over some common questions home gardeners have about choosing seeds.

Q: What is the difference between heirloom, open pollinated, and hybrid seeds? Does it matter which ones I get? (And related: is a hybrid the same thing as a GMO?)

A: This question has to do with the genetics of the seed. To answer this question, it only matters if it matters to YOU, and/or if you are interested in saving your own seeds, so if this feels a little overwhelming, never fear….it’s okay to skip this part if you are not particularly interested in plant genetics or seed saving.

So, let’s start with “open pollinated” and “heirloom,” since they are related and often one and the same. Open pollinated means that if you were to save the seed from a particular vegetable, and grow it out next year, you’d get the same kind of plant (eg, the offspring is identical to the parent). In other words, if you were to breed purebred labrador retrievers, the you would expect the puppies to be purebred labrador retrievers too. And heirloom simply means that the open pollinated variety has been around for at least 50 years. So, all heirlooms varieties are open pollinated, but not all open pollinated varieties are heirlooms, because they may be younger than 50 years old.

Now, let’s talk about hybrids. Hybrids are created through selective breeding. When you breed two specific parent varieties, you expect a certain result in the offspring….kind of like when you breed a purebred poodle with a purebred labrador retriever, you expect the offspring to be labradoodles. Hybrids are created by seed companies and the parentages are often kept under wraps, so home gardeners can’t replicate the results. They may be selected for certain traits, such as improved disease resistance, size, flavor, plant size, productivity and more.

Here’s where it gets interesting. If you were to save the seeds from a hybrid variety and plant them the following year, you’d get a mixed bag, with no idea whether you’ll like the results or not. Kind of like how if you were to breed two labradoodles, you’d get a mix of traits from poodles and labradors in the offspring.

Where some people get confused is in whether to equate a hybrid with a GMO. Hybrids have been around since the beginning of time, and are the result of selective breeding, where as GMOs are the result of manipulating the actual DNA of the cells in a lab. Most seeds available to home gardeners are non GMO. In seed catalogs that farmers used, GMO seeds are clearly marked, so there is little danger of someone not knowing that they are purchasing a GMO seed.

So, heirloom, open pollinated, or hybrid: does it matter? Only YOU can answer that question for YOUR garden. Some people choose to only grow open pollinated varieties because they want to be able to save their own seeds, or because they don’t like the idea of having to go back to the seed companies each year to purchase a proprietary variety. Other people don’t mind using hybrids, or prefer to use a mix of open pollinated and hybrid varieties. Nobody can answer the question for you. Personally, I use a mix of open pollinated and hybrid seeds in my own gardens.

Q: I see that some seeds are certified organic. If I want to grow organically, do I need to buy certified organic seeds?

A: In order for commercial growers to pursue organic certification, one of the requirements is that the seeds they purchase are certified organic. There really isn’t any reason for home gardeners to be pursuing organic certification, so purchasing organic seeds really only matters if it matters to YOU.

Basically, certified organic seed means that the seeds have been grown under certified organic conditions. Seeds that are not certified organic may have been grown under similar conditions by companies who have not sought certification. Along with certification often comes an added cost, which is passed on to the consumer. This may not be an issue for some home gardeners.

There are some seed growers who say that if you plan to grow under organic conditions, certified organic seeds will be better adapted to these growing methods. They may be right.

As in the open pollinated / hybrid distinction, every gardener has a different opinion. Will it make a huge difference in your gardening results? Probably not.

What Else Can a Seed Catalog or Seed Packet Tell Me?

Many seed catalogs and packets also list some growing information, including when to plant, what kinds of temperatures the plants need, how far apart to space the plants, when to harvest, and more. The Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog is an excellent growing manual, so if you have that catalog, it’s worth saving just for the growing information!

So, how do I choose my seeds?

Besides the fun stuff, such as color and shape (for example, you may want to grow yellow cucumbers or purple cauliflower or round green zucchini!), many people like to look at:

  • the number of days to maturity. This tells you how long after planting you can expect the plant to begin maturing. Note that this is a rough estimate, and will vary based on growing conditions. This is a great way to get a continuous harvest. For example, if you want to have 3 cucumber plants, you can plant one 60 day variety, one 70 day variety, and one 75 day variety, and have cucumbers to harvest over a longer period of time!

  • Whether it is open pollinated or hybrid. Some seed catalogs use the abbreviations OP (open pollinated) and F1 (first generation hybrid)

  • Disease resistance. Here in the New England, powdery mildew and early blight are common diseases. Planting varieties that can stand up to these issues will help stack the deck for a longer and more bountiful harvest. Many catalogs list various disease resistances using a code, so if you are looking for this, check the catalog for a key.

  • Container suitability - some catalogs will tell you whether certain varieties are container friendly. Even if you are not growing in a container, this can be a helpful designation if your garden is small, because it will tell you whether the plant will get huge or remain compact.

  • Growth habit - some plants can vary their growth habits. For example, beans can be grown as bush beans or as pole beans. Tomatoes can be grown as determinate (putting out their entire harvest over a 2 or 3 week period) or indeterminate (putting out their harvest a little at a time until frost or disease kills the plant). If you are hoping to can or process your harvest, you may want a determinate plant so you get your whole harvest at the same time, whereas if you are hoping to just pick a little bit here and there, you may prefer the way an indeterminate plant spreads out the harvest.

  • Best uses - some varieties may taste better when eaten fresh out of the garden, while others shine when cooked. Many catalogs will tell you this information.

  • Storage - for crops such as potatoes, winter squash, cabbage, pumpkins, and carrots, you may be growing them to try and store them for the winter. Some catalogs will give you an indication of the storage life and optimal storage conditions, which can be very helpful.

Ultimately, this is the month to dream up your ideal garden and order your seeds!

Where can I get these catalogs of which you speak? And do you have any recommended seed companies?

Most seed companies allow you to request a catalog on their website, or you can read the information online to save paper.

I tend to buy seeds from many different sources. Here are a few (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Pinetree Seeds: great variety and prices, and based in Maine!

  • Fruition Seeds: seeds grown in upstate New York and adapted to the Northeast.

  • Fedco Seeds: co-operatively owned and New England based.

  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds: New England based and the gold standard for many small farms. This catalog has a wealth of growing information - I highly recommend it as a growing guide!

  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: HUGE variety of open pollinated seeds

  • Burpee: huge variety of open pollinated and hybrid seeds (though if the varieties you want are sold at Home Depot or Ocean State Job Lot, they tend to be a lot cheaper than ordering directly through Burpee).

  • Botanical Interests: beautiful drawings on the seed packets

  • Renee’s Garden Seeds: beautiful drawings on the seed packets

  • Victory Seeds: a wide variety of rare, heirloom, and open pollinated fruit, vegetable and flower seeds.

I hope this post leaves you feeling empowered to choose your own seeds. Need some help? I offer garden planning services to individuals, schools, and institutions; drop me a line! Do you have any favorite seeds or seed companies? Leave a comment!

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