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Where to buy heirloom seeds and what’s the real difference between an heirloom, hybrid, or GMO seed? These are questions I get asked quite a bit. I’ll cover all this and more in today’s episode as many of us are planning out our garden, figuring out what plants we’ll be seed starting, and ordering the seeds and supplies we need.
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Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #228 Where to Buy Heirloom Seeds – Heirloom, Hybrid & GMO Differences of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen and life you want for your family and homestead.
Today’s topic on what hybrid, heirloom, and genetically modified seeds mean is where I see a lot of confusion and misinformation that is just wrong. I wanted to address this for those that are new to gardening or are just learning about the difference can learn about these terms and their proper meaning. There are three types of seeds.
First, and I’ll be honest, are my favorite: Heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated seeds from varieties that have been handed down for generations (most sources say if you can trace back at least 50 years). When they are planted they produce the same plant with the same characteristics of the parent plant that you saved the seeds from. This assumes you did your seed saving correctly when it comes to plants that cross-pollinate or are self-pollinated.
Plants that cross-pollinate, squash for example, need care to be sure they don’t cross-pollinate. Methods such as hand-pollinating or using seed netting to keep them pure, otherwise you’ll get crosses that don’t necessarily exactly come back like the parent plant.
In the context of hybrid seeds, we’re talking about hybrid seeds that you purchase in the store. So F1, the first generation hybrid. These seeds are created by companies or scientists in a lab, not a natural cross-pollination that happens with heirloom varieties. It was about the 1940’s when large seed companies started creating their own strains of hybrid seeds. For example, two varieties of a tomato plant that they have put together in a lab to create a different tomato plant. But it’s done in a lab and not a natural cross-pollination like we get with heirloom plants.
These hybrid seeds are created by combining two varieties of the same plant where the best characteristics from each variety are chosen to create a new, hybrid plant. One may be more disease resistant and one offers a higher yield, etc.
There’s nothing wrong with hybrid seeds, you’re just not able to seed save from them and have fewer varieties to pick from.
When you go to the store to purchase seeds or order seeds online you only have available to you heirloom or hybrid seeds. Now, there is nothing wrong with hybrid seeds. If you have no interest in heirloom and grow hybrid seeds that’s just fine. I don’t want people to feel ashamed because they’re using hybrid seed. Personally, we do seed saving. I don’t always save seed every year, but I do a complete heirloom garden because I want to make sure that I’m supporting heirloom seeds (and companies that sell them) because there are varieties that have almost been completely wiped out and lost in a short period of time; less than a hundred years since we’ve had hybrid seeds available to us.
Personally I do an all heirloom garden because that way if I do want to seed save from them I can. But if I’ve put in hybrid plants, I don’t really have that option, or I’m not going to have nearly the success I’m going to have if I had used heirloom seeds to begin with.
I also believe that heirloom varieties have better flavor and there are a whole lot more varieties. I get super excited about all the stories and the different varieties, colors and unique things you’ll never see on the grocery store shelf. You just won’t see the many different options with a hybrid that you do with all the different heirloom varieties.
I’m very biased towards heirloom if you can’t get tell, but I’m being upfront and center about it.
The next type of seed and this is where a lot of confusion comes in, are GMO seeds. A lot of people think genetically modified seeds and hybrid seeds are the same thing and have been occurring for hundreds of year and no, they haven’t. Let’s dive into GMO’s a little bit. Genetically modified seeds, which, by the way, are not for sale at your local big-box store or from regular seed companies. That’s not to say that the seed that you purchase might not have genetically modified stuff in them, but they are not purposely genetically modified. GMO seeds are purchased by farmers, usually big agriculture and you have to have certificates that you have purchased their seed. We’ll talk a little bit more though about how there’s contamination with some of the crops and seed you are getting at the store because of GMO’s.
Genetically modified seeds are seeds that are created in a lab by splicing or combining different organisms, which can be viruses, bacteria, animal DNA, to create a patented plant. For example, Monsanto created GMO corn that has genetic material from bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, that produce an endotoxin. They also have GMO corn that is Roundup® resistant which means the crops can be sprayed with the herbicide Roundup® and the plant won’t die due to gene altering. Over 90% of domestic corn in the U.S. is genetically modified.
The most popular GMO crops are alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soybeans, summer squash, and sugar beets. Recently the USA approved a GMO apple as well.
While you aren’t going to find GMO seeds on store shelves, you may find foods that have ingredients that are GMO, such as soybean or canola oil. If it’s labeled non-GMO, which is what I look for personally, then it’s been tested and sourced from a non-genetically modified crop. Anything that falls in the certified organic isn’t tested as often or as stringently as the non-GMO label but when they do test for it, if it does show GMO, then you can’t have the organic certification.
The reason I bring this up is because of the way that crops pollinate. Especially when you have big agriculture, which is planting these GMO crops in huge fields. Corn, especially in the right conditions, can cross-pollinate up to two miles. Now that means that the conditions are just right…the land is flat, the wind is just right. There’s more that comes into play but it can be up to two miles that it can cross-pollinate. So when there are large fields of GMO corn it’s going to cross-pollinate with whatever corn is around. It doesn’t discern which field is GMO and which one isn’t. This happens with the other crops like summer squash since it cross-pollinates with all kinds of different summer squash varieties.
So, as the years have gone by, we’ve had more genetically modified crops in our large agriculture making its way into our backyard gardens and seeds. You’re going to find cross-contamination within some of those crops, even though the original seeds/plants were not GMO when purchased or seed saved.
Obviously I’m an heirloom seed girl, but where do we get our heirloom seeds? Where are some of the best places to buy heirloom seeds?
Personally I have been seed saving, and my family has been seed saving two types of bean seeds for over five generations over a hundred years, so I’m definitely not buying bean seeds anywhere since we seed save our own strain. We don’t sell our strain of seed but if you’re a member of the Pioneering Today Academy, every spring we send out bonus packets to members.
I now seed save a lot more crops but I had to purchase those seeds originally from other sources because the beans were the only two seeds my family was seed saving. Places that I get heirloom seeds:
If you’re not familiar with them, Baker Creek is like the showcase of heirloom seeds. They’ve done a really good job of collecting cool varieties and educating people. They have a beautiful farm that you can actually visit, see them in production, and buy seeds. They also have a really cool heirloom seeds catalog done in a magazine type style. You can also order online at their great website. I love perusing their catalog and find new things that I just have to try. They sucker me in! Why yes, I do want to that beautiful purple atomic tomato plant this year. And I love the stories that they include on where the different varieties are from, the history or where they were rediscovered.
Seed Savers Exchange is a great resource to order from online. They have a seed vault where they keep seeds so that we don’t lose some of these precious and really rare varieties. Not only do they sell seeds but they do a really good job on education on seed saving and heirloom seeds.
Another option is Seeds for Generations which is a family business offering heirloom seeds. I have gotten to know Jason and his family pretty well. Jason, his wife, and kids run the business together. And how sweet is this? He pays his kids for their help with packing the orders. So your order is packed by the kids, who get paid per envelope. This family endeavor is teaching the kids entrepreneurial and business skills. I really like to support small family-run operations and Seeds for Generations is a great company to support in that regard. I’ve gotten quite a few herb seeds from them. They also offer some good resources for planning on their website as well.
Those are the main ones that I’ve personally ordered from and have experience with. There are a lot of amazing heirloom seed companies out there that are passionate about and love heirloom seeds. These companies don’t want to see these seeds disappear and are helping to preserve that part of history while providing the seeds and educating people.
If you have another great resource for heirloom seeds, let me know in the comments. I would love to share them with my readers who are just as passionate about growing heirloom seeds as I am.
Johnny’s seeds is an original signer of the Safe Seed Pledge for all non-GMO seeds, they do carry some hybrids as well as organic heirloom seeds.
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Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.