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Have you been seed shopping lately? I went earlier this week and left slightly confused, mildly overwhelmed, and completely empty-handed. Granted, gardening does not come naturally to me. To those that have had some gardening success, it’s probably less daunting. After three years of repeated failure, I’ve decided it’s time to figure this thing out!
Last week, we talked about our soil: three quick fixes to boost the nutrient content and how to test your soil to see what needs some tweaking. Today, we’re talking seeds.
After my visit to the garden store to look at seeds, I had two big questions to answer before making a purchase: 1) what’s the difference between a conventional seed, an organic seed, and an heirloom seed, and 2) what should I be planting for my climate/conditions?
Conventional (“Regular”) Seeds
About 90% of the seeds I saw in the garden store were conventional seeds. They ranged from $0.80 – $3.00 per packet, and there were dozens different species available like tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, lettuce, and so on. Within those species, there are also several different varieties (beefsteak tomatoes, slicer tomatoes, cherry tomatoes).
Let’s get this out of the way: conventional seeds are [probably] not genetically modified. It turns out that GMO seeds are actually pretty expensive and only available to commercial growers. Several seed companies have signed the “Safe Seed Pledge”, a document stating that they do not knowingly buy or sell genetically modified seeds. This pledge is not enforced or legally-binding at all, so check with your seed company directly for the absolute truth. For example, large seed company Burpee (their “Moulin Rouge” beets shown) chose not to sign the pledge, but they guarantee that they do not buy or sell GMO seeds.
How are conventional seeds cultivated? There are two main steps to consider in the seed-making process:
Growing Methods– seed crops, grown exclusively for their seeds, are grown separately from food crops, grown exclusively for their food product. Seed crops spend a longer time on the field, waiting for the fruit/plant to fully mature and produce harvestable seeds. Since the food itself is not consumed, the pesticide restrictions are completely different than the restrictions for food crops.
Packaging– conventional seeds are typically treated with chemicals to help give the seeds certain advantages. Anti-fungal chemicals used to prevent fungal growth are the most common, but antibacterial and pest-repellent chemicals may also be used. (Note- not all conventional seeds are treated. There are some untreated conventional seeds available as well.)
Benefits: Conventional seeds have a few notable benefits that may make them the right choice for your garden.
Easy to find – you can buy conventional seeds in specialty garden stores, grocery stores, hardware store, or online.
Easier to grow – treated seeds have some man-made help built right into the seed. This can be helpful to the new gardener or the gardening impaired (like me).
Your seed was exposed to synthetic pesticides during its life, but these chemicals will be diluted over time and growth. If you’re growing a fruit/veg that takes a long time to mature, the chemicals will be well diluted.
The chemicals used to treat your seed before packaging will disperse into the soil and usually wash away within a few days or weeks (depending on the chemical)
Conventional seeds were grown in a chemically-heavy environment. If you’re planning on using organic gardening techniques or a low-chem approach, the seed may not respond as well as seed produced using similar organic techniques.
The chemicals in your seed may dilute over time, but if you’re growing a food that is harvested young such as greens, sprouts, or tendrils, the dilution would be minimal, giving you a greater risk of chemicals in your fresh produce.
I was happy to see a decent selection of organic seeds at the store. Even better…the price difference wasn’t dramatic. Unlike conventional seeds, organic seeds are cultivated without the use of any synthetic chemicals during growth, harvesting, or packaging.
Thanks to the organic growing and packaging process, organic seeds will give you less exposure to synthetic chemicals and toxins.
Organic seeds crops are not chemically fertilized during cultivation, and they have to work harder to get as many nutrients out of the soil as possible. For that reason, organic plants tend to have larger, stronger root networks and will be better at extracting nutrients from the soil than conventional plants that were probably directly fertilized at the root in the soil.
Organic seeds are not treated before packaging and are more sensitive to soil conditions (moisture, temperature, pH, nutrient levels). Plant in optimal conditions for best results.
Some organic seeds may be significantly more expensive than their conventional counterparts. If time allows, shop around online for the best prices.
Have you had any successes or failures with organic seeds? What have you learned along the way?
The Birds and the Bees: Pollination
Before we get into heirlooms, let’s zoom out for a minute and talk about the birds and the bees of plants- pollination. A plant can be:
Open pollinated- letting nature take its course and spread pollen by wind, bug, or animal
Hybridized- intentional, man-made cross-breeding of two different varieties or species
Hybrid vs. GMO
Most of the produce we buy in the store is hybridized. This isn’t a bad thing. Hybrid plants are not the same as genetically modified plants. A hybrid is made by cross-pollinating two different varieties or species of plants. GMO’s are made by taking completely foreign DNA (like from a frog, for example) and manually inserting it into the plant’s DNA.
Plants are hybridized to encourage specific, desirable traits in the food like a specific shape, flavor, color, sweetness, etc. The plant that results from the man-made union usually thrives thanks to a genetic phenomenon- hybrid vigor. Ironically, this strong, thriving hybrid plant produces really weak offspring. That’s why seeds you save from store-bought fruits/veggies are usually a flop in the garden.
An heirloom seed can be defined many ways, but this is typically a seed/plant that has been handed down through generations, usually grown before World War II. Heirloom plants are all open pollinated, and they will produce the same fruit/veg over and over again throughout the years. Heirloom plants are becoming very popular, spurred by the foodie movement right now. Known for their unique appearance and/or flavors, you can see heirloom vegetables featured on the menus of fine, gourmet restaurants (so I’ve heard). They are completely unique, beautiful to look at, and not easily found in stores.
Benefits: Since heirloom plants are open-pollinated and not hybrids, you can collect the seeds from your heirloom veggies/fruits and save them for next year! By buying an heirloom seed just once, you can potentially start a never-ending seed source.
Drawbacks: unless you have some heirloom seeds in your family tree, you’re going to buy heirloom seeds from a seed company. I bought some heirloom beans and peas to try in my garden from Annie’s Heirloom Seeds (no reason why I chose them, just luck of the Google search). I paid about $2.50 for 40 bean seeds and $3 for 80 pea seeds. The gamble? You don’t exactly know how the seed will respond to your environment. Much like the organic seeds, you need to be careful with your growth environment to ensure something actually grows and thrives!
I love the idea of growing unique, heirloom veggies that I can’t find in the store. I will always prefer the chemical-free, all-natural alternatives over the conventional option. However, after several failed attempts, I’d be happy just to grow anything in my garden! Until I figure out my soil issues, I may have to stick to the chemically-treated, conventional seeds.
If you choose to grow conventional seeds, stick to plants that take a long time to mature. This will help dilute the chemicals and lessen your exposure to the bad stuff. If you want to grow greens or fruits/veggies that are harvested young, go organic to avoid chemicals.
Once you get some plants growing in your happy, organic garden, how do you keep the pests and weeds away without chemicals? We’re going to talk about organic pest and weed control options. Can you buy any in the store? What about homemade solutions? What is effective? Let’s find out!
This is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.