Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Humble Seed

Welcome back to another episode of Lost in the Farmers market; today’s topic is the deconstruction of the often baffling terminology surrounding seeds. The goal of today's post is to hopefully provide you the reader with all the information needed to discern what the heck they are talking about in the seed catalogs you receive every spring. Before I get into talk about seed terminology, I need to do a few special notes regarding people and events that have just occurred.

First off I would like to direct all of you to look up the blog Suburban Hermit of Fayetteville, run by a neighbor of mine just up the road. This guy makes in credible use of concrete bits to make these amazing curved terraces in fact his backyard is quite incredible. It’s a good blog with lots of photos and information. Secondly I would like to thank everyone who attended the Sustainable Neighbors Fermented Foods event on Saturday and thank everyone who stayed or came to join in on the Seed Swap event right after. You guys all of you are truly amazing, the response to the fermented foods event was impressive, Perhaps worth a six-month repeat towards the fall even. The seed swap crew was quite incredible as all sorts of seeds were exchanged and honestly the bulk of them were hardcore organic. Out of this I can now say with certainty what BL2 will be growing this year the plant list for 2013 is now in stone with one addition due to a conversation with Marsha about a certain plant variety and will be posted up here in the next LITFM post. Thank you everyone for participating in the event, it was great to see you all.
As a final note to the mention of the seed swap, I think those who read this blog and are in or near the Fayetteville area ought to sit down and have a crop discussion. I noticed that some of our local sustainable neighbors could grow certain things but not others and thus we may have the beginnings of our own local food network. All we need to do is either take a record of what participants can or cannot be grown and start coordinating crops. If we were able to do that we might have the humble beginnings of a new breed of farmers market. If you are interested feel free to contact me through this blog or through sustainable neighbors. You can also contact the wonderful Marsha Howe through Sustainable neighbors with your thoughts comments or if you want to participate.

With all of that said today I would like to talk to all of you about what a seed is and the terminology surrounding it.

The symbolism of the seed is quite well known as it often is used to represent raw potential, and to a lesser extent a state of plant immortality. From this tiny dry little thing comes a great plant that has equal power to feed (Lettuce), beatify (roses) or be a scourge (poison ivy) or even can do great things to improve the environment (mustard).  We as gardeners spend so much time thinking over what seeds to buy because in that tiny packet there are dozens of little potential plants that can make our corner of the word better.

Like anything else the seed is a living breathing organism with a definite life span and it has needs. Some seeds wont germinate unless certain conditions are met while others practice ally grow on anything (chia pet anyone?). Seeds like plants are illiterate, they can’t read your seed packet, don’t care how they were raised and don’t even know what a book is so their ability to do what is genetically preprogrammed is an product of ongoing evolution. Some plants are utterly reliant on mankind to keep them going as they have somehow lost the ability to produce seed (bananas, figs and naval oranges) where as others need mankind to keep their offspring in existence (Corn, Wheat, Rice.) as they are no longer able to out compete naturally occurring ‘weeds’. With all that said the closer a plant variety is to it’s original wild origins the better it tends to be in fighting off insects weed competition and handling changes in the environment. A good example can be found with Lettuce and Chicory, the former having been cultivated for centuries but is still competitive. The latter (chicory) in its basic format is still pretty much a roadside weed, but with good soil and fertilizer becomes a productive perennial leaf green.  In respects to the lettuce some lettuce seed has been known to last for decades in dry storage with modest losses in viability. Old seed may not necessarily be bad seed but for the purposes of growing crops it may not produce the necessary number of plants you seek.

Needless to say, like any other living thing you handle the seed itself requires a few things to maintain most of its viability. We at the Skye project store our seeds in a plastic BPA-free container that has an internal rubber gasket to prevent moisture from getting to the seeds. We also use a few of those little silicon gel packets in the container to reduce internal humidity to prevent any damage to the seeds. The container is typically stored at room temperature away from direct sunlight.

The seed packets above are from a variety of sources ranging from seed saved in our own test garden to certified organic seed and on to major commercial types.
Storage aside there are some terms you should know in regard to the source of your seeds take a look over these terms and then look at your seeds and see what you’ve got.

Cultivar is an amalgamation of the words Cultivated Variety. A cultivar is a specifically cultivated cross or breed which has been selected specifically for a special trait, such as Clemson Spineless Okra which was cultivated and selected for the lack of stiff bristles on the pods. For note Clemson is also one of those varieties that has been called a heritage or heirloom breed but no solid evidence verifies or denies it’s status.

F1 Hybrid
F1 stands for Filial First Generation hybrid; it is basically the seed from that first crossing between two parent plants that has not yet been tested for the stability of its characteristics. You may see a lot of F1 type seed in non-organic catalogs and seed racks as the major companies often rush these plants to market without full garden trials. Admittedly there is nothing wrong with an F1 hybrid, with exception of it being somewhat unreliable genetically.

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
The GMO is a laboratory-produced plant or seed where the genetics of the plant have been intentionally mixed in a way that otherwise would not be naturally possible. Prime examples include Starlink Corn, Roundup Ready Corn and Golden rice. The long term health effects of these products are questionable at best as any real study is often polluted by the biotech industry if it is unfavorable. When in doubt if the seed or plant you are holding is or is not GMO do no buy it. It is better to make due then to let GMO loose.

An heirloom is an older variety of seed that has been handed down through the generations. The issue with heirlooms is the difficulty in establishing what is and is not old enough to count as the word has became a marketing ploy for some seed producers (yes you burpee I mean you.).

Heritage varieties are heirloom varieties that were famous at some point or another for some reason. For instance the specific varieties grown at President Washington’s estate would be heritage varieties because of where and when they were grown. Often such varieties have some noted historical role such as Nankeen Cotton which played a part in the American Civil War as well as in slavery.

A hybrid is merely a cross between two similar plants that produces seed that may or may not have the desirable traits of one or both parents. Typically hybridizing is done through pollen transfers. Hybrids aren’t as bad as many make them out to be as they are often confused with ‘Man-Made’ hybrids and GMO hybrids.

Man-Made Hybrid
The MMH is a hybrid between two similarly related plants in a specific family. This process often involves manual pollen transfer and the intentional exclusion of natural pollinators to attempt to create a normally unlikely cross between two plants. Some examples of such crosses can be found in the Faux Haworthia (aloe x haworthia), the Gasteraloe (Gasteria x Aloe) and a large number of house plants and annual flowers. The MMH isn‘t necessarily bad because there isn’t supposed to be any actual genetic manipulation however the product plants that result could be pretty bizarre looking, sterile or even extra aggressive.

Open-Pollinated seeds or OP seeds are ones produced from parent plants where nature is allowed to take it’s natural course and pollinators such as bees and butterflies do all the usual work. A lot of the non-purple color varieties of Cherokee heirloom type tomatoes were first produced in this way. Ideally OP seed should be the only way seed is produced but corporate agriculture seems to have other plans.

The term variety is used to indicate the plant or seed in question is somehow a variation on the primary variety. For instance, Yellow Brandywine and Pink Brandywine are varieties of the Brandywine type tomato. There generally is nothing wrong with a variety because it is often the product of a natural mutation some aspect of unintentional selection. As with GMO seed if there is a doubt on it’s origins do not buy it.

The term wild is often applied to seed that is very close to it’s genetic origins, Currant tomatoes, dandelions and chicory are all virtually identical to their wild origins. Wild seed isn’t a bad thing but always make sure you have absolute identification of the plants they produce.

I know you all have heard the adage ‘a weed is a plant out of place’ or ‘A weed is a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” This is true and I often refer to weeds with quotes because most of them do have a use. Corporate agriculture on the other hand makes profit from telling you that weeds are the downfall of civilization or well at least your yard. Most of them can be used to indicate soil conditions and weather patterns. As with Wild seed, always verify what you have before you eat anything.

With all that covered there are a number of terms being used on the market now that certainly do not help the average gardener make the best decisions for him or herself. Below is a list of a few seriously organic seed sources that do not use GMO seeds and have a good reputation for providing excellent seed and plant stock to the Skye Project

Baker Creek Seed
High Mowing Seed
Richters Seed
Southern Exposure Seed
Seed Savers Exchange

With all that said if you hardcore gardeners out there are on track by now your hot seasonal such as eggplant and peppers should have been started a week or two ago, and your ready to push on to tomatoes and other less temperature sensitive plants. If not you should get started since the weathers trying to turn more mild spring is approaching rapidly. Check in at LITFM next week for our official 2013 plant list and the next phase of our current topic. As always Folks keep ‘em growin!


  1. Great definitions. My only suggestion, include common names, pictures, or pictures of seed packets as examples of each definition.

    Thanks for the plug.

  2. Your welcome, it was my pleasure to make sure it got up there where everyone could see it. Now about the seed stuff, common names are fine but I exclude them in any incidence where they might give someone the wrong idea. As for the pictures I avoided them because seed packets are somewhat lacking in complete information. For instance I know I have heritage and heirloom seeds but none of them actually say that on the packets. In fact only the Seed Savers packets even say "USDA Organic". Another issue with the pictures is that I don't want to give the idea that because somethings say a Striped Togo Eggplant that it's always organic. Black beauty eggplant can be both in fact and some companies actually sell both organic and non-organic seed.