The Dirt Diva

Tailoring your garden to your needs!

Seed Talk: Decoding Organic, Heirlooms, Hybrids and GMO’s



A mature head of lettuce

A mature head of lettuce







If you’ve found your way to my site, you know pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers are all things you want to avoid in your garden. But now your awareness goes deeper. You see “heirloom” and “organic” a lot on labels for your favorite food products, and at the same time are learning that GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) are something you want to avoid, but may not know how or why. When you open a seed or plant catalog, you’ll see the terms “heirloom”, “hybrid” & “organic”.  For the gardener who wants to grow organically, how do you navigate these terms and choose the seeds or plants that are right for you?  This article will hopefully clear up some of the fog surrounding these labels.

Q: If I want to grow an organic garden, does that mean I have to plant only heirlooms? Are hybrids and GMO’s the same thing and to be avoided?

A: Organic gardeners can choose heirloom and hybrid varieties, but never GMO’s. Here’s how they differ:

Hybrids are seed varieties resulting from the cross pollination of genetically different parents, done in a controlled environment by a plant breeder. Hybrid varieties can be Certified Organic, but they can also be conventionally grown. That depends on the growing conditions at the farm or garden where the plants were grown. Chances are you’ve bought hybrids if you’ve purchased seeds or veggie seedlings from a garden center, as hybrids are often bred for the mass market.

Heirlooms are a subset of open pollinated seed varieties that have been saved by gardeners and farmers, and passed down from generation to generation, usually a long-time family favorite desired for its taste or appearance. Heirlooms can also be both Certified Organic or conventionally grown- again that depends on the conditions at the farm or garden where the plants were grown.

Q: How do you know if a seed or plant variety is a hybrid, heirloom, Certified Organic or conventionally grown?

hot pepper SapporoA: The label accompanying the plant, or description in the catalog should tell you this information. Sometimes in place of the word “hybrid” you’ll see the code F-1 or F-2 in the description. This is just another way of referring to a hybrid variety.





Here’s a simple diagram to illustrate how a hybrid comes about:diagram_hybrid

This is showing pollen being transferred (aka cross pollinated) from the flower of a yellow bell pepper plant to the flower of a red pepper plant, and the offspring (the plant that sprouts from that seed) is the hybrid, a totally new variety that exhibits the most desirable traits of its parent plants!

Psst! The action is all in the flowering stage- that’s when a plant is getting ready to make its seeds. If you are a seed breeder or a seed saver, you’ll watch your plants like a hawk before, during and after the flowering stage, so you can get busy hybridizing or seed saving.

Q: Why would I want a hybrid vs. an heirloom variety?

Short A: I will ask you more questions! It depends on what you need from your plants. Are you a backyard gardener just feeding yourself or do you need heavy yields to bring produce to market? Do you want a tomato for canning sauce or for snacking? Maybe you love Romaine lettuce in summer but last year your plants bolted too early and got bitter? How important is uniformly looking produce to you?

Long A: The whole point of hybrids is to create new varieties that exhibit certain desirable traits. Think of the dog world for a minute. A LabraDoodle is a new breed resulting from crossing a Laborador Retreiver with a Poodle, so you get a dog that has the best characteristics of both breeds. In the vegetable world, a plant breeder’s goal is to improve varieties for reasons like: uniformity in size or color, better shipping quality, earlier ripening, resistance to bolting, or higher disease resistance. Hence the hybrids.

Heirlooms are kind of like purebred animals of the plant world. People who “breed” heirlooms are actually just saving seed. When a dog breeder finds a breed they like, they breed it with another member of the same breed who has the desirable characteristics they are looking for. With heirlooms, a gardener looks for varieties they like and in order to maintain those same characteristics year after year they’ll save seeds from certain plants. tomato weeping charley( I have a favorite paste tomato variety I have been saving seed from for 5 years now) Taste, unique visual appeal, plant vigor, disease resistance, ripening time are all things a gardener would be looking to perpetuate upon by saving seeds from open pollinated plants.

You’ll notice some other vocab above in relation to hybrids and heirlooms, and these are open pollinated and cross pollinated. Don’t worry too much about these now. I’ll talk more about these in a future post about seed saving.

Now, for the GMOs. GMO stands for “genetically modified organisms” and are living organisms (seeds, plants and animals) whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, (G.E.). This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Source:

GMO’s exist because it is believed that farmers need to “feed the world” in our global economy. The resulting system of mono-cropping (planting 100’s or 1000’s of acres of the same crop) has given rise to problems like drought, plant disease, water, air and soil contamination from heavy reliance on herbicides and pesticides. Multinational corporations like Seminis/Monsanto, Bayer, Cargill, and Syngenta have invested millions to develop plant varieties and animal breeds using GMOs, claiming they can: increase yield, reduce pesticide use, control disease, deliver more nutritious foods or help with climate change. These same companies however, manufacture the pesticides and herbicides that are used in conventional agriculture. I could write a whole post exclusively dedicated to the myths and truths about GMO’s, but I don’t have to. Instead I can recommend a fabulous new report, called 10 Questions about GM Foods, from the authors of GMO Myths and Truths. Its like the Cliff Notes of GMO Myths and Truths and you’ll come away knowing a whole lot more on the subject.

To avoid GMO seed while catalog shopping,


look for a disclosure in your catalogs or on the websites  that they either do not purchase seed from multinational seed corporations that produce GMOs, or they alert you to which varieties they sell which do come from these companies. I can recommend 2 reputable seed companies who supply organic as well as conventionally grown seed, hybrids and heirlooms, who are located in the Northeast and disclose such info. Fedco Seeds, and High Mowing Seeds. If you want to support a company that specializes in open pollinated and heirloom seeds, and is growing nearly 100% of their seed locally and organically, visit the Hudson Valley Seed Library to purchase seeds.

Now, your questions. Are you more confident in your seed buying strategy this year?


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