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Differences Between Open-Pollinated, Hybrid and Heirloom Seeds

Basket of colorful open pollinated tomatoes. Wondering what the differences between organic, non-gmo, open-pollinated, hybrid and heirlooms seeds are? Check out this post for all the answers!

In winter, the garden might be a soggy mess, but it’s one of the most important times. Because in winter, we plan and we dream, we read seed catalouges, and we pick out what we will be growing the rest of the year. But if you’re not familiar with the terminology, reading those seed catalouges can be confusing. Not only do you have a gazillion tomatoes to choose from, but you also have the choice of organic, non-gmo, open pollinated, hybrid and heirloom seeds. Wondering what the differences are? Read on!

Understanding Seed Types:

Open-pollinated: These are seeds that came from a plant that was pollinated naturally, by either bees, wind or other insects. They will produce a plant that will look exactly like the parent plant the seed came from. With a few steps to isolate and preserve, seeds from open-pollinated plants can be saved by the average home gardener and planted year after year.  Seed companies label these seeds as either open-pollinated or OP. 

Wondering what the differences between organic, non-gmo, open-pollinated, hybrid and heirlooms seeds are? Check out this post for all the answers!

A basket of Wild Boar Farms Tomatoes. In open pollinated seeds, you sometimes get a genetic mutation, known as a ‘sport’, that produces a desirable plant. With some knowledge of genetics, you can save these seeds and start a new variety, like these here.

Heirloom: Think of heirloom seeds as the antiques of the seed world. While the seeds themselves are not old, their family line is. Heirloom seeds are always open-pollinated and have been saved for many generations. There is some variation in time frame, but most people identify seeds as heirloom if they have been being saved for over 50 years. These varieties are often more flavorful, nutritious and adapted to the local region. Heirloom seeds preserve genetic diversity and cultural heritage.

Anasazi beans are one example of heirloom seeds. Wondering what the differences between organic, non-gmo, open-pollinated, hybrid and heirlooms seeds are? Check out this post for all the answers!

These Anasazi Beans are one type of heirloom bean that I grow in my garden. I save seeds from each harvest to plant next year, just as people have been doing since about 500 AD.

Hybrid: These are seeds that are the first generation of a cross between two varieties. These are not genetically engineered, but a cross made by traditional breeding techniques (think back to 7th grade science and Mendel’s peas). You take a flower from plant A, pollinate plant B with it, and you will get seeds that are plant C. In the garden, many people prefer hybrid over open-pollinated because hybrids have been bred specifically for things like pest or disease resistance. You can not save seeds from this plant and have it grow into the same plant, and you have to buy your seeds year after year. Hybrid seeds can be thought of as the opposite as open pollinated. Seed companies labeled these seeds as either hybrid or F1.

Wondering what the differences between organic, non-gmo, open-pollinated, hybrid and heirlooms seeds are? Check out this post for all the answers!

This purple cauliflower in my garden is a hybrid. You can find purple cauliflower as an heirloom, but I usually buy cauliflower as a start, and nurseries usually grow hybrids.

Certified Organic: These seeds come from farms that are inspected by the USDA’s Organic Certification program. Certified organic seeds can not be genetically modified. Certification is expensive, so many seeds may not be certified as organic, but still grown with organic practices. If in question, ask the company about where their seeds are from and how they are grown or produced. Organic seeds can be open pollinated, hybrid or heirloom.

Non-GMO: Seeds that are labeled as Non-GMO are not certified organic but are GMO free. The main GMO seeds are corn, soy, peanuts, canola, sugar beet and alfalfa. GMO seeds are mostly sold to big agribusiness farms and involve lots of contracts, so they are unlikely to be available in home garden form. However, GMOs can spread via pollen and can contaminate home gardens. Some companies will test their seeds, particularly corn, to ensure what they are selling is GMO free. It is getting harder and harder to get non-GMO corn seed.

Even if the seeds you are buying are non-GMO, that doesn’t always mean you aren’t supporting GMO companies. Many smaller seed companies were bought out Seminis, Monsanto’s seed brand. I strongly urge you to consider getting seeds from a supplier that does not support genetic engineering or is owned or affiliated with Seminis. Looking for a company that has signed the Council for Responsible Genetics’ Safe Seed Pledge is a good start.

Wondering what the differences between organic, non-gmo, open-pollinated, hybrid and heirlooms seeds are? Check out this post for all the answers!

A selection of seed and plant catalouges that I receive, offering an assortment of different types of seeds, including hybrid and heirloom seeds.

In my garden, I like to plant heirloom seeds for varieties that are easy to save seeds from, like beans or tomatoes. Things like lettuce and broccoli I don’t bother to save seeds from, so I will grow hybrid and heirloom seeds.

What about you? Do you find yourself growing more hybrid or heirloom seeds?


Understanding a seed catalouge can be difficult if you don't understand the language. Wondering what the differences between organic, non-gmo, open-pollinated, hybrid and heirlooms seeds are? Check out this post for all the answers!

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