Planting Seeds….Heirloom, Hybrid, Organic

seed packages compressed


Last year, the time came to plan the garden in the late winter of 2013, and as usual I dove right in without much thought. Yah, I stood there in front of the seed selection at Home Depot, and couldn’t resist buying way too many seeds, far more than I could ever plant in my plot,  (and a week before I couldn’t resist the surprisingly great Kmart selection as well).  Did I mention I had gone there to buy paint? Anyway, I still hadn’t tallied last years results, and had no business buying ANYTHING until I had done so, but what gardener can resist the gorgeous display?  Not me apparently.  Like a kid in a candy store.

I certainly wasn’t able to grow everything, but that’s beside the point.

The year before (2012) I bought almost all my seeds at my local Garden Center (Gethsemane), and selected mainly organic and NOT hybrid, (and most of my seeds were not from big name seed suppliers).  But last year, in 2013, I weakened, and although I used lots of organic, and heirloom seeds, I also grew hybrids.

But did I really weaken?   Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to balance the garden with a bit of each, and also try some other varieties than the same old same old….and even save some seeds.  At any rate, it was an interesting experiment.

But what are the differences?  Here’s a brief overview:

Heirloom Seeds

Heirlooms are plant varieties that were grown in earlier times, but are not commonly cultivated today by large scale agriculture or plant cultivators.  They are varieties that have been grown without crossbreeding for 40 years or more (although some argue a minimum of 100 years should apply).  Here are the main considerations when using heirloom seeds:

  • Heirloom seeds can be saved each year, and used for next year’s crop.
  • There is a much wider variety of plants to choose from, if you use heirloom seeds.
  • Heirloom seeds are ‘open-pollinated’, meaning they do not need help from humans to pollinate – they pollinate using natural mechanisms.  So, the seeds from an heirloom plant will grow plants that are the same as the parent plant (unlike hybrids).
  • Because heirloom plants have adapted to whatever climate and soil they were originally grown in, their genetics have given them resistance to local diseases and pests in their natural environment.  But, they will not be as tolerant as hybrids for other environments (at least until they adapt to the new environment over time).  This is important to keep in mind when choosing the types of seeds to plant.  Also, keep in mind that some heirloom tomatoes for example produce less than hybrid tomatoes (remember, hybrids are bred to be high performers).
  • Heirloom seeds were not necessarily grown organically on the parent plant.  And because heirlooms are sometimes more susceptible to pests and diseases, they may have more trouble in that area.

Before the industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of plant foods were grown for human consumption. In 1951, hybridization was introduced.  In modern agriculture in the industrialized world, most food crops are now grown in large, monocultural plots. In order to maximize consistency, few varieties of each type of crop are grown. These varieties are often selected for their productivity, their ability to withstand mechanical picking and cross-country shipping, and their tolerance to drought, frost, or pesticides. Hybridization of plants has occurred to instill the most desirable qualities of several varieties, into one plant.  However, the seeds of hybrids don’t produce plants that are the same as their parents – therefore aren’t ‘saved’ and replanted the following year.

Heirloom gardening is a reaction against this trend.  Here are some more good reasons to choose heirloom varieties:

  • Biogenetic Diversity. Plant species are dying out at an alarming weight. Heirloom gardeners, through growing and saving seeds of treasured crops, are ensuring that these plants won’t become extinct. In addition, keeping diversity in our food chain protects us against large plagues or crop failures.
  • Frugality. Growing heirlooms is a frugal way to have a bountiful garden. Each season, you can grow the crop, harvest the food, save the seeds, and store them to grow next year’s garden. If you save a lot of seed, you can even get involved in seed exchanges with other heirloom gardeners to get more diversity in your garden.

The trend to grow heirloom varieties has grown exponentially in recent decades.  More and more people are attracted to growing plants that are unusual, older or historic varieties, and having the option of saving seeds for the next year’s growing season.  If you are considering growing heirloom seeds, you must check out – a really great site.


Cherokee Tomatoes from my Summer 2012 Garden


Hybrid Seeds

Hybridization is when different species or varieties of plants are cross-pollinated.  Although hybridization can occur naturally, it is the commercially produced kind of hybrid seed that we are concerned about here.

The reason behind commercial cross-pollination is to ‘build’ a better plant: better yield, greater uniformity, improved color, disease resistance, etc.  The first generation of a hybridized plant cross, known as F1, also tends to grow better and produce higher yields than the parent varieties due to a phenomenon called ‘hybrid vigor’. However, any seed produced by F1 plants is genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years. It’s important to note that hybridization is NOT the same as GMO (genetically modified organisms).  Here are the main considerations when using hybrids:

  • Bred for greater resistance to pests and diseases.
  • High performers.  For example, some tomatoes are bred for thickness of skin and firmness of flesh (to stand up to more handling and easier factory processing), i.e. having the best flavor is not necessarily the highest priority.
  • You can choose the level and type of performance you desire: for example, do you want a plant that has more output, or perhaps a longer production time?
  • Seeds cannot be saved for following year to produce same plants (cannot duplicate parent plant with seeds).  You need to purchase new seeds each year .

Organic Seeds

Organic farming uses integrated pest management methods, such as crop rotation, compost and green manure for crops and pastures. One important goal is to restore the natural balance of land that has been damaged by decades of use of manufactured fertilizers and pesticides, plant growth regulators (hormones) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations. In 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was established to give the international farming community a uniform set of standards.  The US Department of Agriculture is the regulating agency in the US. Every region in the US has certification agencies for farms that enforce the requirements of the USDA National Organic Standards.  If you want organic seeds, make sure the packet has the certification marked on it.


  • Heirloom seeds are not necessarily organic.
  • Organic does not necessarily mean heirloom, i.e. if hybrid, you can’t save the seeds.

Growing Methods

Starting seeds indoors. In 2012 I used dixie cups (made small hole in bottom of cup), filled with potting soil, and placed the cups on old cookie sheets.  Sheets were placed in a cool room by a south facing window.  That worked fine, except for the dixie cups started to fall apart near the end, when I watered the seedlings, and I had to encourage the water to drain through the easily clogged holes at bottom of the cups.  And I totally rusted my cookie sheets.

In 2013 I didn’t mess around.  I bought (for about $8. each at Kmart) seed starting kits, (this year I plan to buy just the planting material inserts, and reuse these plastic boxes).  And last year I used some old peat pots I had laying around – See photo below.  I’ll be the first to admit I’ve taken the easy way out.  There are ways to start seeds using other less costly methods: plain plastic flats with potting soil; or newspaper ‘cups’; or the dixie cups I tried last year, to name a few.


In case you’re wondering…’s a brief overview of the last two years results in my garden – a list of some of the plants I’ve grown  (started from seed), and what I thought about the final outcomes (my favorites are in green).  Remember though, some of the poor results could easily be human error (I don’t mind admitting):


  • Tomato – Cherry – Gardener’s Delight (started indoors)REALLY GREAT. Tremendous output.  Early to ripen and stayed plentiful all summer. Started indoors.
  • Tomato (pole) – Cherokee PurpleGood taste, but too much core.  Tomatoes are lumpy shape, so after cutting out core not enough flesh.  Interesting to look at, but not as pretty cut up. See photo above. Started indoors.
  • Beet – Detroit Dark Red – high producer, but take a long time to mature.
  • Squash (winter) – Sweet Meat
  • Squash (summer)  – Black Beauty Zucchini – Seeds didn’t grow.
  • Squash (summer) – Scallop (Patty Pan) Blend – Good taste, but not enough output.
  • Brussels Sprouts – Long Island Improved (started indoors) – Seeds didn’t grow.
  • Melon – Cantaloupe – Hale’s Best Jumbo – maybe one melon?
  • Melon – Cantaloupe – Hearts of Gold – maybe one melon?
  • Bean (Pole) – Kentucky Wonder – Oh boy, great producer!
  • Chives – Common – started indoors but did not transplant to garden well.
  • Cucumber – Straight EightNice plant – fair amount of cucumbers.
  • Basil – Italian Large Leaf (started indoors)Great producer on back porch in city! No luck in Michigan garden though; animals ate the plants.
  • Pea (shelling) – Wando – Great producer!
  • Dill – BouquetGreat producer!
  • Carrots – Danvers 126I learned my lesson (again) – MUST THIN.  Nice carrots, but take forever to grow.


  • Beet – Detroit Dark Red, Medium Top (organic) – high producer, but take a long time to mature.
  • Squash (winter) – Waltham Butternut**
  • Squash (winter) – Burgess Buttercup (certified Burpee organic seeds) **
  • Onion (bunching/scallion) – White Lisbon – okay producer.
  • Cucumber – Homemade Pickles Steady producer mid-summer to end of season.

**- I loved the squash, which had a medium output, but I have no idea which variety had the success.  Lost track of markers….

Wikipedia: Heirloom Plant
Seed Savers
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