GROW: How To Read a Seed Catalog
The winter months are quiet times for the food & herb grower and that is part of the problem. If we had to tend to gardens, we’d have less time to drool our way through those beautifully produced seed catalogs that start arriving in December. And we would be far more realistic about what we really can grow.
There’s only two words to describe this activity: garden porn. (Don’t Google that phrase…the links DO NOT involve gardens or growing.)
Where You Buy Your Seeds Matters
If you are new to growing food, then those seed catalogs can be a bit overwhelming and full of unknown botanical and horticultural terms. Seed buying has also become a political act: what and where you purchase seeds is increasingly important to our overall agricultural system. And that is not an exaggerated statement.
Over the last few decades, biotech companies (think Monsanto) and chemical companies (think Dupont) are buying up seed suppliers and now own 73% of the world’s seed. One of the first things these corporations do is eliminate the diversity of seed by simply not making them available for sale. Their suspected long-term goal is to move to a limited inventory of patented, genetically modified and expensive seeds. Seeds that are proprietary (patented and owned by the seed breeder or company) are often unable to reproduce additional generations of plants. More importantly, it is illegal to save and plant the seed of patented and/or genetically modified seed.
FREE THE SEED!
The only real power we have against large corporations is how we spend our money. Buying non-patented seeds from small seed companies who support the Safe Seed Pledge and the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) ensures the following freedoms:
- That our agricultural system has the biological diversity necessary for its healthy survival.
- That future generations have access to the plant diversity we currently enjoy.
- The right to practice the 12,000 year old tradition of saving and planting seeds.
- That our food is free of genetically engineered seeds.
What is the Safe Seed Pledge and the OSSI?
Over 70 seed catalog companies have signed onto the Safe Seed Pledge. This statement offers a evidence of the seed companies commitment to not selling genetically engineered (AKA GMO) seeds. This pledge is not regulated in any manner and only indicates that the company does not support the distribution of GMO seeds to home gardeners.
The Open Source Seed Initiative is an organization dedicated to preservation, access and education about open source seeds (no patents, licenses or restrictions on the use of seeds). This short article from Civil Eats offers an overview of the OSSI's mission.
How to Help Maintain Access to Seeds
As seed buyers, your choices can make a difference. Consider these three simple actions:
1) Buy seed from organizations/businesses that pledge to support and protect access to seed diversity.
2) Save and share more of your own seed.
3) Educate others about the importance of open source seed and encourage other growers to support this effort.
Where to Buy Seeds
I prefer to buy from regional and smaller seed companies and seed saving non-profits, who grow and save most of their seed from their own fields or nearby seed growers. Another advantage of buying from a regional seed grower is that the plants have adapted to environmental conditions. Small seed saving businesses are almost always anti-GMO and typically offer untreated and/or organic seeds. The Open Source Seed Initiative has a listing of Seed Company Partners who sell Open Source seeds throughout the United States.
Larger seed companies & organizations who offer seeds that are OP, heirloom and non-GMO include Seed Saver's Exchange, Baker Creek, Johnny's Seed, Fedco and Strictly Medicinal. Check around your region for local seed businesses and seed exchanges. Seed-saving libraries are also starting to pop-up, too. Check with your Master Gardener program about annual seed exchanges.
But... back to How to Read A Seed Catalog...
Understanding the biology and business of seeds is the first step. This list defines terms that are commonly used in seed catalogs.
Heirloom: Originally, the definition pertained to varieties with a history of greater than 100 years, but today heirloom varieties can be much younger. Though commonly defined as a variety passed down amongst families or communities, many seed companies produce and sell heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are considered to be a part of the genetic heritage for that crop. Some seed suppliers also call these heritage or historic seeds. In most cases, they are open-pollinated so the seed can be saved for reproduction.
Variety: Related plants that share nearly identical traits and have evolved in the wild from a species or subspecies and which is sufficiently distinct to be given its own varietal name. Can be saved for reproduction.
Cultivar: An abbreviation for cultivated variety and indicates that a plant variety has evolved in cultivation rather than in the wild. The plant names are sometimes trademarked.
Hybrid or Plant Variety Protection (PVP): A plant resulting from the intentional cross mating of distinctly different parental types. Hybrids & PVPs can be made b/t any two parents regardless of their genetic background. F1 hybrids (often referred to in seed catalogs) are the result of a cross between two inbred lines. Seeds often do not “come true” which means that they will not look or taste like their parents. Hybrids are usually licensed or patented. Note: Hybrids include those that have been bred to resist environmental conditions like disease, to change taste, size or color and/or to increase yield.
Genetic Modified or Engineered: While humans have been manipulating plants for thousands of years to increase yield, improve taste, resist disease or change the size, genetic engineering of seeds began in the last 30 years and involves inserting genetic material from other species or adding chemical compounds (e.g., Roundup Corn). These seeds are currently only available for animal feed (corn and soy are examples) and are not available to home gardeners. They are always patented and growers are not allowed to collect seed and replant.
Non-GMO: An organism whose genetic material has not been altered across species or intra-specifically through genetic engineering.
Open-pollination (OP): Generally, a term to indicate that a variety may be cross-pollinated but is not an F1 hybrid. Specifically, OP allows individual plant within a population to freely inter-mate. Seed can be collected and will “grow true” when planted.
Untreated Seed: Not treated with preservatives, fungicides or other chemicals that are commonly used in a conventional agriculture.
Organic Seed: Seeds that have been produced according to the National Organic Program standards.
Source: Common Seed Terms from OSU/WSU 2007 Farming Sourcebook
Author: Sue Kusch
Sue Kusch, a former community college instructor and academic advisor, incorporates her experiential wisdom, expertise and science-based research garnered from her three decades of growing vegetables, fruit and herbs into her educational writing about plants and how people use them. In addition to her BA in Social Sciences and Masters in Education, she completed the Master Gardener training in 2011 and two permaculture courses in 2001 and 2014. She has studied medicinal and nutritional uses of herbs including studies at Herbmentor.com and East West School of Planetary Herbology since 1997. An avid reader, lover of historical and folkloric information, and a promising storyteller, Sue writes about the intersection of plants and people at www.plantsnpeople.com.
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