Is this just something trendy? Is this important? Should the average gardener care what they are planting? Is buying heirloom seeds like buying bell bottom pants?
Lets visit the distinction between the types of seed you can purchase.
Heirloom seed is a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the generational sharing of heirloom antiques passed down through generations.
An heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. While some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a variety that is more than 50 years old), The Dirty Gardener specifies heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed. We have been in the farming business for 5 generations. Starting in the Midwest and migrating "out west" where most the seed you purchase and the rest of the USA grows.
Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural occurrence.
With little to no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will remain true-to-type year after year. Bees do a pretty decent job at keeping this going and it is of great concern of their decline.
Hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed by plant breeders.
Hybridization can occur naturally through random crosses, but commercially available hybridized seed, often labeled as F1, is deliberately created to breed a desired trait. The first generation of a hybridized plant cross also tends to grow better and produce higher yields than the parent varieties due to a phenomenon called ‘hybrid vigor’. Seed produced by F1 plants are genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years. Not only will the plants not be true-to-type, but they will be considerably less vigorous. Seed companies love this because the gardeners who plant hybrids must purchase new seed every year. Hybrid seeds can be stabilized, becoming open-pollinated varieties, by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many years.
We really try and limit the types of hybrids we offer, preferring the Heirloom seeds.
GMO vs. Non-GMO
GMO plants, on the other hand, are the result of genetic engineering. (“GMO” stands for “genetically modified organism.”) 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. All of our plants are grown from non-GMO seeds and we actually know the farmers who grow them.
Currently commercialized GM crops in the U.S. include soy (94%), cotton (90%), canola (90%), sugar beets (95%), corn (88%), Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%), zucchini and yellow squash (over 24,000 acres). (Number in parentheses represents the estimated percent that is genetically modified.)
Hopefully this clears things up for you and can give you the information you need to make a good decision when planning your garden! We appreciate your business and are here to help.
The Dirty Gardener