University of Maryland Extension

Choosing the Right Seed by Allegany County Master Gardener Donna Gates

Allegany County Master Gardener Donna Gates
tomatoes on the vine

Choosing the Right Seed

Donna Gates, Maryland Master Gardener

The new seed catalogues are pouring in.  Trying to decide which seeds to buy can be a daunting task.  Many people have favorites and order the same seeds or buy the same plant starts each year.  Others like to try something different. Whether your interest is in fruits, vegetables, and/or flowers, here are a few explanations that may help in some of this decision-making. “Organic” means that the seeds or plant starts were raised using organic methods, without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. 

When the pollen of one plant fertilizes another plant (of the same kind, such as one green bean fertilizing another green bean) via wind, insects, or self-pollination it is said to be “open pollinated”.  Open pollinated plants have a lot of genetic variability built in.  Such plants are not necessarily all the same height, pods may be different lengths upon maturity, and/or they ripen at slightly different times, etc.  Because open pollinated plants have more genetic diversity, some may survive attack by a new disease, change in weather patterns, insect pest, etc.  As well, the slightly staggered flowering and fruit maturation times mean that an early or late frost may not kill all the fruit.  If you grow open pollinated plants, you can save the seeds.  Each year you grow them, they become more in tune to your local conditions.  Some gardeners, not satisfied with the flavor of a hybrid fruit or vegetable, are turning to heirlooms. 

An open pollinated plant that has been grown for at least 50 years is classified as an “heirloom”.  As an example, documentation of Lina Sisco’s Bird Egg Bean begins with its cultivation in Missouri in the 1880’s, brought there by wagon train (See

“Hybrids”, on the other hand, start out as open pollinated plants but a breeder chooses the pollen from a plant showing a particular trait and purposely fertilizes another plant of the same kind that has a different trait.  After several years of choosing and growing, a plant is developed that has two desirable traits, such as large fruit and resistance to a particular disease.  The resulting hybrid will produce plants that are identical in height, flower color, time of ripening, etc.  They are designated in catalogues or on packets as “F1”.  Seeds produced by F1 plants, however, are either sterile or will not produce offspring similar to themselves.  F1 seeds must be purchased each year in order to have the same traits the F1 seeds displayed.  Hybrids, generally, have less genetic variability built in but can be useful if a particular trait is desired.  Growing a hybrid plant resistant to a specific disease would result in fewer pesticides used.  It is also useful if you will be canning the crop and need to have enough ripen at one time.  Commercial growers opt for hybrids because the uniformity in height, maturation, fruit size, etc. lends itself to mechanical harvesting.  Hybrids are not useful, however, if a new disease or insect pest turns up and all the individuals are susceptible to it. 

A “GMO (Genetically Modified Organism)” is a plant or seed (or any organism) whose genetic material has been altered by genetic engineering.  The current use of this term refers to the transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods.  Do not get confused, just because a seed is a hybrid does not mean that it is a “GMO” product in the popular sense of this term.  Currently, only commercial growers can purchase GMO seeds.  As a home gardener, you will not find packets of such seeds available to you at your local garden center.  Most organic seed companies make it a point to label their seeds non-GMO.  Reading the front or inside cover or mission statement of a seed company can help you in choosing the right seeds to achieve your personal goals for your garden.


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