A Brief Dictionary Of Seed Descriptions Found In Seed Catalogs

Four seeds all in a row 2

Today’s post is written by Dean Mullis from Laughing Owl Farm. A few months ago, I asked Dean if he could explain the different types of seeds to me. I was thoroughly confused about what you should look for if you wanted to save your seeds year to year. Dean not only explained it to me-he wrote me a Dictionary of Seeds.

A Brief Dictionary Of Seed Descriptions Found In Seed Catalogs

Looking through your favorite seed catalog can be a bewildering experience. Terms such as hybrid, heirloom, open-pollinated, etc. are used to describe the seeds. There are treated seeds, conventional seeds, organic seeds, and even GMO seeds. What does it all mean?

There are two basic types of seeds in your favorite seed catalog, open-pollinated or hybrid.

So, what does that mean? If your aim is to just grow a garden and don’t intend to save seeds, it means you don’t have to worry about whether the seed is open-pollinated or hybrid, just buy the seeds you want to grow. Some of the other seed descriptions might influence your purchase though.

Below are some basic definitions but even at a basic level it can get a bit confusing.

Open-pollinated seeds – These are seeds that if you save and re-plant, you will get basically the same plants next year. In the seed catalog, these may be listed as open-pollinated, OP, or no description at all. Until open-pollinated seeds became a buzzword, it was understood that unless a variety was listed as a hybrid, it was open-pollinated. If you save seed from OP seeds it does not mean you will get cookie cutter offspring the next year. The seeds are genetically diverse. For example, there are several strains of Brandywine tomato. Different folks have saved Brandywine seed for different traits based on size, color, flavor, yield, etc.

Hybrid seeds – Hybridization of seeds occurs naturally and has been practiced by farmers in a hit and miss fashion for thousand’s of years. It is basically when two varieties in the same family of plants cross-pollinate to produce a third variety. You may remember Mendel’s experiments with peas in the 1860’s this from freshman high school biology.

What modern hybridization does is take the best traits from two different similar varieties, called parent lines, and creates a third variety that has valuable traits. This may be better disease resistance, better flavor, greater yields, etc. Hybridization is an exact science now.

Seeds from a hybrid will not come true, the seed will revert back to one of the parent lines.

A common example of this is when volunteer tomatoes  sprout up in the garden or compost pile and produce small tomatoes we always called “tommy toes”.

Hybrid seeds will be listed in the seed catalog as hybrid, F1, or F1 hybrid. F1 means it is a first generation cross.

Now to get into the mess of the rest of the descriptions..

Organic – certified to be grown without chemical inputs, may be OP or hybrid.

Heirloom – variety that has been passed down for generations, always OP but may not be organic, may be conventional and treated but probably not.

Treated – seed coated with fungicide, not organic, could be OP or hybrid.

Conventional – not certified organic. Could be treated, heirloom, OP or hybrid.

GMO seed – Not a problem yet with garden seed but it is looming on the horizon.

GMO stands for genetically modified organism. It involves manipulating genes of different species and inserting them into the DNA of seeds of commercial agricultural crops. The most common application is commercial corn, cotton, and soybeans that have been engineered to be Round-up Ready, which means these plants have been genetically engineered to live when sprayed with Round-Up while every other living plant in the field is killed by the herbicide Round-Up.

What most people do not realize is the vastness of GMO crops in NC and the USA.

Those fields of corn and soybeans you drive past, and cotton in the eastern half of NC are mostly GMO crops. 95% of the soybeans grown, 80% of the corn, and 65% of the cotton are GMO crops.

Because high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil, are used so much in the processing of what passes for food in our grocery stores, 60-70% of the food in the grocery store contains ingredients from GMO crops.

Gardening / Seed Buying Advice

Don’t get too hung up on the definitions, what you grow in your garden is going to be much better than what is available at the grocery store. The garden I grew up with was not organic, we planted pink seeds, daddy used 10-10-10 fertilizer, and Momma was fond of Sevin dust.

They still do it that way. 2010 is our 22nd year of organic market farming. I would rather eat a tomato or beans freshly picked out of Momma’s garden any day over certified organic stuff from California that has spent a week on a truck.

by Dean Mullis


I hope Dean’s Dictionary gave you a better understanding of seed types-I know it cleared up my confusion. Dean has a great site-Laughing Owl Farm. You can subscribe to his free newsletter-it’s always full of interesting goings on at his farm and it’s full of humor too. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Charlotte NC area-you can find Dean or his wife at one of the local markets selling their organic produce and eggs.


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  • Reply
    March 17, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks for this, Tipper!
    It definitely answered some of my questions.

  • Reply
    March 14, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    That’s a lot of info! I may have to bookmark this post for future use!

  • Reply
    March 14, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    This is one of those posts you need to bookmark and use as a good reference guide. Thanks Tipper and Dean!

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    March 14, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Tipper: I never look at the seed description but try to treat the planting with as much loving care as possible.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    March 14, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Interesting things in this post…
    Wonder what seeds one should save to store for their own “doomsday” stash…since this week was announced that the “doomsday” seed stash had reached half million seeds…..
    I don’t know if I would save…
    Old seed varieties/heirloom seeds?…
    Varieties that grow and produce despite weather conditions?…
    Treated seeds for disease resistence?…
    Varieties that don’t require lots of space?…
    GMO seeds?…because the land could be contaminated and these seeds might survive to produce?..
    I don’t know if organic seeds would matter that much?…..
    Maybe I’ll just save my favorites?….
    I really think I wouldn’t care that much…maybe unless..I could save doughnut seed!….
    I told my grandchildren that’s what “Cherrios” were for…LOL

  • Reply
    petra michelle
    March 14, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    So comprehensive, Tipper! That was wonderful of Dean, and I’m sure you’re feeling so relieved to have a reference!
    Would love to visit NC! One day! :))

  • Reply
    March 14, 2010 at 9:45 am

    who could know there was that much to know about seeds. when daddy was buying seeds, there was not all this to decide about, not interenet and no seed catalog. he just went to the local seed and feed and bought seedlings or bags of seeds or kept the ones he had from the year before. he would be on info overload with all this. very interesing. thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 13, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    YES, a very informative and helpful post. We really don’t know the outcome of eating genetically engineered food, there has not been near enough research!
    Thank you Dean and thanks for your humor….”what passes for food in our grocery stores” ain’t it the truth!!

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    March 13, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Good useful post! Thanks, Dean and Tipper!

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