Know Your Seeds

A photo of seed catalogs

By now the blizzard of seed catalogs has probably loaded up your desk and coffee table. There are both reliable and fickle ones.

By Barbara Perry Lawn

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener Magazine, January/February 2013]

By now the blizzard of seed catalogs has probably loaded up your desk and coffee table. There are both reliable and fickle ones. Learn from gardening friends which ones are dependable and are loaded with good information. Note that the seed catalogs displayed at the Kemper Center of the Missouri Botanical Garden are top quality. If you aren’t on the mailing of a catalog you want and you haven’t got the inward 800 number or the email address, look them up on Google. (If you don’t have access to Google, your local library can help you.)

The advantages of growing from seeds early and indoors are worth considering. The selection of varieties both old and new is much wider than you will find as potted plants in either local nurseries or mail-order resources. Growing plants from seed is a wonderful way to expand and diversify a collection. The per-plant cost is considerably less, an import factor if you plan to buy more than just a few. Always buy top-quality seeds that are true to species and as free from weed seeds and disease as possible.

Further, there is great satisfaction in producing your own plants from seed to maturity. You will find that you spend an inordinate amount of time (well spent!) studying your seed flats, watching for the first sign of tiny green sprouts, growth of the first true leaves and development into sturdy seedlings ripe to plant out. If you are reasonably successful, you can share a few plants with friends—I promise you they will be thrilled.

A good idea would be to visit your local nursery and shop for seed flats, small pots for young seedlings and growing medium. Also look there for seeds. In fact, look everywhere for seeds, from your favorite nursery to botanical gardens to catalogs. Once you have the seeds in hand, read the back of the packets carefully—seed producers want you to succeed and so have provided top information on growing different varieties. If you are new to growing your plants from seed, you might look for those that are easy to grow—check the seed packet and your local horticulturist.

Major Seed Types

Learning the difference between hybrids and open pollinated seeds is helpful. First of all, you will run into the term “cultivar.” This simply means “cultivated variety.” Cultivars may be known by the common name or the scientific name and, in addition, may have specific cultivar names. An example would be cornflower, Centaurea cyanoides ‘Blue Carpet.’ A cultivar may be either a hybrid or open-pollinated variety.

Open-pollinated seeds are those that result from pollination by insects, wind, self-pollination and any other natural form of pollination. Hybrid (F-1) seeds are first generation seeds that result from crosses between two pure lines of plants. (Pure lines are those that produce identical plants when self-pollinated.) Hybrid crosses must be made for each growing season. The added labor and research causes hybrids to cost more. If you collect and plant seeds from hybrids, they will not come true to the parents—be sure to buy fresh hybrid seeds for each new growing season.

Heirloom seeds have become very popular in recent years. They are open-pollinated cultivars that have been selected over 50 or more years to produce plants that are similar to the parents. There are a number of seed-saving organizations that have been promoting and breeding the heirloom, many of which have been handed down from one generation to the next.

Other Seed Terms

American organic seeds are those that meet specific USDA government requirements. They must be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or any other artificial substances or processes. USDA specialists must regularly approve and accredit all seed businesses for them to use the term organic on their products.

Genetically Engineered and Genetically Modified Organism are terms used to describe any high-tech methods (GE) or—and this is an important difference—gene manipulation through plant breeding techniques such as have been used for hundreds of years by plant breeders (GMO). While there is this difference in meaning, technically, in common use and general acceptance both terms seem to be used interchangeably.

A number of companies have signed a Safe Seed Pledge that is maintained by the Council for Responsible Genetics. These companies promise not to either sell or buy genetically engineered seeds.

The terms “treated” and “untreated” refer to the process of treating seeds with fungicides to prevent disease. These terms thus far refer to commercial crop seeds.

Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO.