Appalachia Gardening

Seed Descriptions And What They Mean

Explanation of different types of seeds

A Brief Dictionary Of Seed Descriptions Found In Seed Catalogs written by Dean Mullis.

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 you 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 from freshman high school biology. 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:  Seeds certified to be grown without chemical inputs, may be OP or hybrid.

Heirloom:  A 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:  Seeds that are not certified organic. Could be treated, heirloom, OP or hybrid.

GMO Seed:  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. 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.

2015 is my 27th 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.


I hope you enjoyed Dean’s seed explanations as much as I did. All the different types can be confusing-especially for folks who are just starting to raise a garden.

Dean has a free monthly newsletter you can sign up for-it’s always full of interesting goings on at his farm and it’s full of humor too. If you live in the Charlotte NC area, you can find Dean or his wife selling their organic produce and eggs at one of the local markets-his newsletter also details which market and what they’ll have for sale.

If you’d like to receive Dean’s free monthly newsletter-send him an email and let him know at [email protected]



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  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    April 8, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    I have to say I am now even more ready and willing to avoid GMO plants and their fruit even more than I was before knowing this.
    I didn’t know they were genetically altered to survive being sprayed with Round-Up when everything else living around them withered and died. Now THEY may be genetically altered to survive Round-Up, but I and my pets am not, so why would I want to eat anything or feed my pets anything that has been sprayed with Round-Up when we KNOW beyond the shadow of a doubt that Round-Up is a residual hazardous chemical building up in the organs of living beings until enough has been absorbed and retained to cause serious illness and/or death?
    Am blessed to now know this.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Pamela Danner
    April 8, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    Very informative! Thank you for posting. I really do love the heirloom seeds too. Want to go more in that direction for my vegetables.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    April 8, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    What is scary is the fact that it is a wonder that we are not already out of food…GMO or otherwise…
    America wastes so much food…me included! There are times leftovers would suffice, but just couldn’t eat beans, etc. another day so out they would go, unless I made a pot of soup, etc. So many times we buy more than we really need on sale, (the rainy day syndrome) and it goes out of date…Sometimes we can more than we can use and it goes to waste, unless you have a hungry hog one could feed it to.
    I do toast old bread, crumble and put in the freezer to mix with suet for the birds…I can just save so many dressing/stuffing crumbs….LOL
    I have wished so many times when we have an abundance of garden produce that someone in need would come take it home, cook and eat it…
    Even the “preppers” that are accumulating seeds and canned foods for disasters or the Apocalypse have to replace some of it as it goes out of date?
    The last time we cleaned the freezer and food storage cabinets…I decided that I was going to try and do better about using up the foods that we had…whether I wanted another pickle, dry bean or not!
    I want to TRY TO live up to my heritage…

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    April 8, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    Tell Ken when he is ready to pick his Hickory Cane corn to let me know and I’ll come over and steady the ladder for him.

  • Reply
    April 8, 2015 at 11:18 am

    I like the heirloom seeds best too.
    You don’t know what will sprout out of you years down the road when you use that genetically altered stuff. I wish they’d stop using it!
    Over the years, I’ve tried to keep heirloom seeds for my Hickory Cane Corn and White Half Runner Beans. I like the Silver
    and Golden Queen altered stuff
    too, but there’s nothing that
    tastes as good as the cut-off
    Hickory Cane Corn. It has 8 rows
    to each ear, I still got some.
    And that stuff grows over 12 feet

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    April 8, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Good explanations indeed. We were organic gardeners back in the 60’s when it was considered a bit kooky, though I guess we weren’t pure because we also used the fungicide coated pink seeds.

  • Reply
    April 8, 2015 at 9:33 am

    Thanks for sharing the seed descriptions. I try not to buy any GMO seeds. There was a recent TV show about how GMO seeds will prevent starvation here in the US within the next 20-30 years by growing larger disease-free vegetables. That’s a scary prediction!

  • Reply
    April 8, 2015 at 9:26 am

    Thanks to Dean for the explanation of the different seeds. I would not have spent the time wading through some gardening book for this, but appreciated the concise information here on my favorite daily read. I grew up also with the 10-10-10- fertilizer, and I still use it today along with Sevin dust. Manure and compost is added whereas my parents usually rotated and plowed new ground. After all these years, it is still so fascinating that a little seed can be planted and grow wonderful food. It is such an exciting time when I find a young one who shares the love and total excitement of just growing things.
    I have had two years of the most bountiful and tasty crop of volunteer tommy toes growing under my dryer vent. I finally decided to save the seeds, so it is anybody’s guess what will grow out. I love it when our local farmers are supported. It may be my imagination but seems I can smell the difference in fresh picked.

  • Reply
    April 8, 2015 at 8:59 am

    I never realized how many different types of seeds there are. Now when I read the packet, I might understand a bit more about what is written there. Thanks!

  • Reply
    April 8, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Sadly the email address is no longer valid for Dean. I was really looking forward to his newsletter. Thank you for sharing the seed information. My God be with you and your garden.

  • Reply
    Steve in Tn
    April 8, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Thanks. A quick and informative read. I strongly agree that fresh is best.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    April 8, 2015 at 7:58 am

    Well said, Tipper. You possess a good balance of intelligence and good sense. Our food world has gone crazy. You have to stand n the grocery store and study the labels carefully to determine how much poison is in the product. Buying seeds is a whole other challenge as well.
    Your explanations are very clear, thank you!

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