Types of Seeds: Explaining Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, Organic, Hybrid, & Non-GMO Seeds


There are many different types of seeds offered for sale to home gardeners. Vegetable, flower, and herb seeds sold in garden centres and online can carry many labels, including “Open-Pollinated”, “Heirloom”, “Organic”, “Hybrid”, and “Non-GMO”. Knowing what these terms mean is a key part of Gardening 101!

Open Pollinated Types of Seeds

Open-pollinated types of seeds are pollinated naturally by birds, insects, wind, or other animals. Open-pollinated seeds will “breed true”, meaning they produce plants that are roughly identical to their parent seeds (as long as the parents are of the same variety). These types of seeds are genetically diverse. This genetic variation helps plants adapt to local growing conditions over generations. Many organic gardeners prefer open-pollinated seeds.

open pollinated types of seeds

Heirloom Seeds

Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated seeds that have been passed down through generations of human families or communities. These historical varieties have been preserved and passed down in a tradition of generational sharing similar to passing down jewelry. All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are heirloom seeds.

Saving and exchanging seed with other growers is a traditional practice that has been happening for thousands of years. These heritage types of seeds have been saved by growers and passed down for generations. The seeds evolve over time, naturally adapting to the local climate. This natural adaptation makes heirloom seeds well-suited to organic gardening.

Certified Organic Seeds for the Home Garden

Organic seeds are grown with the same procedures and certifications used to produce certified organic food. Some organic gardeners trust and rely on the organic certification, while others worry that not introducing “wild” seed decreases genetic variety. As with all seeds for sale, choose a trusted seed seller and do your research on the variety offered (and customer reviews).

Wild Crafted and Foraged Types of Seeds

Seeds collected from wild plants are often known as “wild-crafted” or “foraged”. These seeds are among the hardest to find for sale commercially. Some organic gardeners collect their own wild seed, while others find them for sale at seed swaps or available from a local seed lending library.

Different types of seeds for organic gardening

different types of seeds on farmhouse table

Hybrid Types of Seeds

Hybrid types of seeds are created when one plant variety is pollinated by the pollen of a different species or variety. Seeds that are hybrids can occur in nature without human intervention, but the hybrid seeds for sale in garden centres are the result of the traditional work of plant breeders. Traditional breeders work in fields and greenhouses to produce a hybrid plant that combines the best traits of each of the parent plants by naturally cross-pollinating them by hand.

Hybrid seeds do not produce identical offspring plants. Offspring plants will not be true-to-type to parent seeds, and also may be less healthy. That being said, hybrid seeds can be stabilized into open-pollinated varieties by traditional selection and seed saving over generations of seeds. To continue to grow the same varieties however, hybrid types of seeds must be re-purchased from the seed company every year.

Hybrid seeds are not genetically modified. GMO seeds are developed in laboratories whereas hybrid seeds are developed in fields or greenhouses. Hybrid seeds have been developed for centuries by growers, and are considered safe for organic gardening. GMO seeds are a recent scientific development (see below).

Types of Seeds: GMO Seeds

Genetically-modified organisms have been engineered in laboratories by scientists to have certain traits. This is a relatively new technology in plants, with the first GMO crops developed in the 1980’s. In the case of seeds, many common seeds such as corn and soybeans have been designed to be resistant to broad-spectrum chemical plant killers. Roundup Ready Crops are likely the most infamous of these GMO plant varieties.

Altering the genes of a plant to resist chemical herbicides allows the grower to drench the crop in herbicides to kill any weeds, without killing the crop. Unfortunately this has led to herbicide-resistant weeds and increased use of manufactured chemicals in our food. Doesn’t sound too tasty does it? Relying on factory-produced chemicals to grow a few plants at home kind of defeats the point of having a home garden.

planting different types of seeds

Connecting GMO Seeds and Chemical Companies to Home Gardens

Fortunately, in most areas, it is unlikely that the average home gardener would come across GMO seeds to grow in their garden. Distribution of seeds is generally restricted by agricultural regulators and limited to industrial farmers. It is possible to find round-up ready seed in classified ads or at agricultural supply stores, but they are marketed to industrial farmers rather than home gardeners.

It is much more likely that a home gardener would buy seeds produced by a company that also produces industrial GMO seeds and herbicides for use with them. For instance, Seminis Seeds is now owned by Monsanto, the makers of Round-Up and Round-Up Ready Crops. Seminis supplies select conventionally-bred (non-gmo) seeds to larger home gardening companies like Johnny’s Seeds and Burpee Seeds. Even though these seeds are non gmo, many gardeners just don’t like the idea of their cash going to big chemical companies.

Nowadays, when new crops are developed by corporate entities, these plants are the intellectual property of the corporation that introduced them. Saving seeds and growing new plants from patented crops is considered patent infringement.

Treated Types of Seeds

Seeds of any type can also be treated with chemicals to prevent rot or to deter pests. Treated seeds often have a bright colourful coating. I’ve seen treated seeds that look like they’ve been sprayed with red, blue, and/or green chemical coatings. Since I garden organically, I keep chemically-treated seeds out of my garden and choose untreated seed.

Types of Seeds - collecting wild seeds

Choosing Types of Seeds for your Home Garden

Many home gardeners and small growers choose open-pollinated and heirloom crops for their home gardens so that they can legally save and replant the seeds they’ve grown themselves. It’s also quite common for organic gardeners to buy their favourite hybrid plant seeds each year for crops like tomatoes. Stick to trusted seed companies and always do your research before choosing types of seeds for your garden!

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