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Ask a Master Gardener: Seeds, part 2

by Paula Tredway | January 8, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

It seems like every time I go to the mailbox, there is another catalog there. I'm not complaining though, it helps alleviate the winter doldrums. There always seems to be new varieties to consider.

One thing I have noticed in recent years is the increased use of the words "heirloom" and "open pollinate." And of course, a lot of gardeners are concerned with GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seeds. I thought it might be a good idea to review what some these terms mean.

We'll start with open pollinated seeds. Open-pollinated, or OP, plants are varieties that grow true from seed. This means they are capable of producing seeds from this seasons plants, which will produce seedlings that will be just like the parent plant. These are the seeds you will want to plant if you plan on saving the seeds from this year's crop to plant next year.

However, some plants will naturally be cross pollinated with other plants, so even if it is OP, the saved seeds from a natural occurring cross pollination could yield a different plant than what you planted this year. Peppers will cross pollinate with other pepper plants and if your sweet peppers are too close to your hot peppers, next year you might end up with a lot of hot peppers. If you are saving seeds it might be a good idea to isolate your plants.

By definition all heirloom plants are open pollinated, but not all open- pollinated plants are heirlooms. Heirlooms are older varieties, 25 years or more, of open-pollinated plants that have been preserved by repeatedly growing them again and again through the years.

New varieties of open pollinated plants are being developed even now. If they manage to stick around for 20, 30, 40, 50 years or more they too can become heirlooms.

Hybrids are a plant variety developed through a specific, controlled cross of two parent plants. Usually, the parents are naturally compatible varieties within the same species. This hybridization, or the crossing of compatible varieties, can happen naturally in the garden. Plant breeders basically just steer the process to control the outcome and speed it up a little. The seed for a hybrid plant will not produce a crop with the same characteristics, so seed savers beware.

I like to plant a variety of open pollinated and hybrid seeds. Tomatoes are a good example of this variety. Some of the older hybrid tomato varieties are my favorite, Jet Star and Rutgers to name a couple. Of course, a tomato patch without a heirloom like Bradywine could hardly be called complete. But I do like the disease resistance, size and taste of a couple of newer hybrids, Mountain Fresh Plus and Red Duce. There are new varieties coming out every year and you don't know how they grow or how they taste till you've tried them yourself.

Do not confuse hybrid seeds with Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds. GMO plants are the result of genetic engineering. This is a process during which the plant's DNA is altered in a way that cannot occur naturally, and sometimes includes the insertion of genes from other species.

It is hard for the average gardener to get GMO seeds right now. These are used mostly for large cash crops like corn and soy, so do not be intimidated by this for your home garden. Most GMO seeds require you to sign a contract stating you will not sell or replant the seed from the crop you grow. This is because, unlike the hybrid, they will reproduce a copy of the parent plant and the producer wants you to buy the seed from them not grow our own.

With all these different seeds and varieties, I am wondering if I might need to enlarge the garden space ... again!

Happy gardening! (or should I say catalog browsing)

Peter Sutter is a life-long gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]

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