Seed Terminology

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It is that time of the year to start buying vegetable and flower seeds for the garden or farm.  As you page through seed catalogs, or browse seed racks at your local store, some of the terms might be a little confusing. To help, here are the meaning for some of the terms you'll see.

Organic -  Like organic produce, organic seed is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and is not genetically modified seed. In the U.S., organically grown seeds must meet the standards of the Dept. of Agriculture's National Organic Program (NOP).

Heirloom  (aka Heritage) - The definition seems to vary, but in general an heirloom plant is one that has been grown reliably, carefully preserved and handed along from generation to generation. Some descriptions say an heirloom plant has to have been grown reliably for at least 50 years. Heritage varieties are often open-pollinated, but there are some early hyrbids.

Open Pollinated (aka OP) - Plants produced without the selective cross-fertilization of hybrids. These varieties retain a more diverse, stronger genetic heritage and grow true to type. These seeds may be saved and will produce the same plant in future sowings as long as proper seed saving methods are used. (To learn more about basic seed saving, visit

Hybrid (aka F1 Hybrid) -  Some may misunderstand the term hybrid and think it is not a good thing, like GM or GE plants.  Hybrids are created by cross-fertilizing plants to create desired features in the offspring, which creates a new variety that is superior to either parent plant. Seed from a hybrid crop will not likely breed true for future crops, so you will not want to seed save from a hybrid plant.  When growing hybrid plants you should start each growing season with hybrid seed from a reliable seed supplier.

Genetically Modified (aka GM, GMO, GE, Genetically Engineered) - Seed that is altered at the gene level in a laboratory to produce characteristics such as sterility or pest resistance. These types of seeds are legally owned buy the large seed companies, can't not be seed saved, and are largely designed to create profit for their owners (ie: the large seed companies).  It is the feeling of many, including us, that the risks of using these genetically altered seeds far outweigh any possible benefits.

Annual - A plant that completes its life cycle, from seed to seed in one growing season.  While you would generally reseed these plants each new growing season, if it possible to let the plant go to seed at the end of a growing season, and self-seed itself. (I often do this on some level with my various greens.)

Biennial - A plant that completes its life cycle in two years. The first year it grows leaves, stems and roots, then is dormant during colder months. In the second year it produces flowers, fruits, and seeds before it finally dies.

Perennial - A plant that lives for more than two years, with some living for decades. (or thousands of year as in the case with some trees).  Perennial fruits, herbs and vegetables are an excellent way to create fairly low maintenance edible landscaping around your home, and can create diversity on a farm.