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The Seed You Need: A Gardening Glossary

Spring is on the horizon. For gardeners, this is the perfect time to plan what to grow this year. Seed […]

The Seed You Need: A Gardening Glossary

Spring is on the horizon. For gardeners, this is the perfect time to plan what to grow this year. Seed […]

Spring is on the horizon.

For gardeners, this is the perfect time to plan what to grow this year. Seed catalogs are arriving in the mail with a dizzying array of choices. However, some of these catalogs appear to be written in code, with lingo that leaves the beginning gardener scratching their head. If you don't know the difference between a hybrid and an heirloom, if you can't tell your cultivars from your cross-pollination, we're here for you. 

Here's a basic list of terms.

Skip to the glossary

But first, let's address the elephant in the room: GMOs. Historically, GMO seeds have not been available to home growers. Farmers who purchase GMO seed sign restrictive use agreements, so it is unlikely that the average citizen would accidentally buy and plant GMO seeds. However, that's starting to change. 

The GMO purple tomato is the first GMO seed made available to home growers. Last year, a few small farmers in the U.S. sold the tomatoes at farmers markets. This year, the GMO Purple Tomatoes will be available at select retail and farmers market locations, and seeds are sold online. You can find out more about the GMO Purple Tomato, including non-GMO alternatives that offer the same health benefits, here.

And now, the glossary!

Cultivar — A cultivar is a group of plants that have been bred through human intervention for desired traits. The word "cultivar" is short for "cultivated variety." Cultivars may be propagated reliably through cuttings or grafting, but are unlikely to retain the characteristics of the parent plant if grown from seed.

"F1" — This term appears frequently in seed catalogs. "F1" indicates a hybrid seed. "F1" is the first generation following the successful cross-pollination of the two parent plants. The cross-breeding process can continue: Offspring of F1 hybrids would be called F2 hybrids, indicating that they are part of the second generation, and so on. As a hybrid, "F1" seed will be stable for one generation, but the seed those plants produce will not remain "true to type," retaining the characteristics of the original parent plant.

Heirloom — An heirloom plant variety is a named, open-pollinated strain that either pre-dates modern breeding programs or has not been altered by them. As a general rule of thumb, heirloom varieties have undergone open-pollinated reproduction for more than 50 years. 

Hybrid — A hybrid is a new variety of plant that is made through crossing two different parent plants of related species. While hybridization can occur naturally, home growers most often encounter hybrids that were purposefully created by seed breeders by crossing two parent plants with desirable traits. The increased genetic diversity of a hybrid can result in more abundant crops, a phenomenon known as "hybrid vigor." If you're interested in saving seeds season after season, keep in mind that hybrid plants grown in your garden won't produce seed that is "true to type" because the genetics aren't stable. 

Landrace — A landrace crop is a cultivated variety, or cultivar, that has evolved over generations of farmer selection. Landrace crops contain great genetic diversity and can display a range of traits. The quality that they share is their adaptability. Landrace crops will thrive in the bioregion where they were produced — a quality called "local adaptation." Their genetic diversity makes them a gold mine for traits such as drought-tolerance or pest-resistance. Landraces are constantly changing in response to their environment and the decisions of the farmer who grows them.

Open-pollinated — Open-pollinated plants are propagated in a field, the pollen carried by wind or pollinating insects and animals to neighboring plants. Open-pollinated plants grown in isolation will produce seed that can be saved year to year, whereas open-pollinated plants that are allowed to cross with others of their species will produce hybrids (see hybrid). Open-pollinated seeds are a better choice than hybrids if you're interested in saving seeds produced in your home garden and replanting them next year.

Variety — A variety is a group of plants that has evolved due to natural selection rather than human intervention. The plants have naturally evolved to exhibit a common set of characteristics, and those characteristics vary from the rest of its species. Plants grown from the seed of a species variety will often produce exact copies of the parent plant. 

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