The seed is one of the most powerful and resilient biological technologies on the planet. A magical time capsule for plant life, it contains the ability to not only store a potential plant for years, but the ability to replicate itself and generate more seed once it does. A Judean date palm growing in Israel, nicknamed Methusela, comes from a 2,000-year-old seed found in King Herod’s Masada complex. Varieties of beans grown by the Anasazi have been found in multiple cliff dwellings and are now commonly grown in gardens all over the US.
Consider the limited lifespan of the technologies we are so proud of! How’s that four-year-old cell phone working out for you? Knowing seed catalogue terminology enhances the shopping experience. The more you know, the better you’ll grow.
Cultivar: This is the technical name for a variety of plant produced by selective breeding.
Selective breeding: This is a process by which a grower selects which plants to breed based on chosen desirable traits in a crop—flavor, disease resistance, insect resistance, beauty—and then uses those plants to improve a variety. In seed production circles, this is known as compressing the genetics. This traditional approach to evolving and improving plants has over thousands of years created the incredible diversity of cultivars we enjoy today, with the exception of a handful of modern GMO crops.
Open pollinated: This refers to a plant that will, when pollinated, produce seed that will result in a plant that resembles its parent. Select open pollinated seed if you plan on saving your own seed, which you should! Take precautions to avoid cross pollination so that you end up with plants that are “true to type.”
Self pollinated: Many plants can set edible fruit all by themselves, without pollination. These have what is known as “perfect flowers.” If you are growing on a patio, or have a small space to work with, selecting varieties that self pollinate helps to ensure a good harvest.
Hybrid: While selective breeding compresses the genetics of a cultivar, making a hybrid involves taking two distinct cultivars with compressed genetics and breeding them, which results in offspring that benefit from the best characteristics of their parents. It is a common misconception that you cannot save seeds from hybrids. You can. However, the seed saved from hybrids will usually not resemble the plants they were saved from, but rather a mix of the original two parent plants.
F1: This represents the generation of a hybrid, so an F1 would be first generation, F2 second, etc.
Resistance: Through traditional plant breeding, we can select plants that are resistant to disease, insects or both. These plants have characteristics that naturally allow them to defend themselves, so if you have struggled with a particular disease or pest in your garden, consider selecting a variety that is resistant. The type of resistance is indicated by an abbreviation with the plant description, and you will generally find a key to them at the front of the catalogue. For example, in the Mountain Valley Seed catalogue’s Tomato Ace 55 VF, the “V” stands of verticillium wilt resistance, the “F” stands for fusarium wilt resistance.
Determinate: This means the plant will grow, set and ripen the majority of its edible portion all at once, then die. This is very useful if you are planning on preserving food, as you can get one big harvest and be done with it.
Indeterminate: This means the plant will continue to grow and set fruit, slow and steady, until the plant dies. This is useful if you want to enjoy a paced harvest over the whole season. Useful tip: Often, especially in peas and cucumbers, if a single fruit matures completely, the entire plant will quit setting more fruit. Don’t forget to harvest regularly, so that you can keep the privilege of harvesting regularly!
Heirloom: Originally, an heirloom was exactly that—a cultivar that was handed down from one generation to the next. This usually meant a variety was particularly well adapted to a specific bioregion. However, nowadays the term usually refers to an older, more rare variety of plant that is not associated with commercial agriculture.
OMRI-listed: The Organic Materials Review Institute determines which materials are suitable for use in organic growing. Look for the OMRI label on fertilizers, pest controls and other gardening product you purchase to be sure it’s safe for you, your children and pets, insects, and soil microbes.
Coated seed: Occasionally a seed is coated with a substance to help combat disease or improve germination. As an organic grower, make sure any seed coating is OMRI-certified.
Pelleted seed: This process helps to take those itty-bitty seeds like carrots and make them large enough that someone with chunky manfingers, like myself, can handle individual seeds. This also allows them to be planted by seeders easily. They are coated with a material, usually a clay base, that dissolves with water and allows the seed to germinate. While more expensive, they can sure make planting easier, and save you time on thinning in the future. As with coated seed, make sure the material used to pellet the seeds is OMRI-listed.
A word about GMO: Genetically modified organisms are created through lab techniques to bypass the limits set by nature on the reproduction of a species. No company sells GMO seed to home gardeners.
While the catalogue culture has brought individual gardeners an ever widening range of choices of cultivar to select from, the paradox is that the overall total number of different plant varieties continues to diminish every year. According to National Geographic, we lost nearly 93% of our vegetable varieties between 1903 and 1983! Why is this? Historically, varieties of plants grown were quite unique in different regions, with gardeners and farmers saving their own seeds and stewarding their own varieties. As mentioned above, the term “heirloom” refers to exactly that—a favorite variety of plant that was passed on from generation to generation, a plant particularly well adapted to a particular bioregion. How many of you still grow a tomato, lettuce or squash grown by a great-grandparent?
This generational stewardship grew increasingly rare over the last century, as the number of farmers rapidly decreased, convenience elbowed out tradition, the supermarket paved over the gardens, and large seed companies conglomerated and gobbled up smaller regional seed houses. Local seed companies are now rare; in fact I know of only one company improving and adapting varieties for our bioregion: Snake River Seed Cooperative in Boise, Idaho. Fortunately, this trend does seem to be reversing, due in large part to the resurgence of interest in genetic diversity, food security and the reward of seed stewardship.
As enjoyable as it is to scroll through the latest garden catalogues, I want you to consider a time in the future when you’ll no longer need them. Just as produce from the garden is better than anything at the supermarket, seeds saved from your own garden will almost always outperform something ordered from a far-off grower. Before you place that order this season, consider attending a seed swap, calling your grandmother, or asking your favorite gardening buddies for some of their favorite seeds.
Local sources for seed:
Snake River Seed Cooperative: SnakeRiverSeeds.com
Mountain Valley Seed: MVSeeds.com
James Loomis is a small scale “beyond organic” farmer, and teaches monthly workshops on various topics involved in Regenerative Agriculture. Visit http://on.fb.me/1QRXeYq for workshop schedule.