After location and soil, one of the most important choices for a successful gardening experience is the choice of seed. Most seeds are generally considered to be heirloom, hybridized or genetically modified.
Heirloom seeds are selected and are not genetically modified or hybrid. Seed from an heirloom plant is generally open-pollinated and saved from the most desirable plants producing seed that is, with a few exceptions, the same as the original. Desirable plants are selected for colour, size, vigour, disease resistance and so on.
Heirloom seeds that are grown locally or regionally may adapt to climate conditions. Over the growing seasons, seed that produces faster maturing plants will be the ones that produce seed more quickly for the next growing season which can be desirable. One disadvantage of harvesting the first seed produced from some plants like early bolting lettuce varieties is that it encourages early bolting in future lettuce plantings. For vegetables like lettuce, harvesting the seed produced later on the plant is generally more desirable.
Hybridization is the controlled cross-pollination of two or more varieties of the same plant. These seeds may be a good choice for home gardeners who do not wish to save their own seed. The hybrid plants will grow and produce as expected but the seed cannot be saved as it will not be the same as the hybrid parent and is usually sub-standard.
Corn varieties are selected for earliness and for germination in cold climates. Modification in cob type, water requirements, growth habit and other characteristics are achieved by selection and hybridization. Many corn varieties still require isolation so that even corn growing in a neighbour’s garden could cross-pollinate with corn in your garden.
Varieties of open-pollinated vegetables such as squash, cucumbers and other vine crops, if planted close to one another, will cross-pollinate, resulting in plants that do not produce much useable fruit. For most gardeners, planting only one variety of the same class of plant in the garden won’t cause any problems.
Genetically modified seed is produced by the insertion of extra-species genes into the plant. Research has been conducted with specific genes from fish inserted into tomatoes and strawberries to make them more frost tolerant. Similar gene research using soil-born organisms have been inserted into potatoes and corn to prevent insect damage. Unfortunately, in some cases these plants have been implicated in motor neurone complications with ALS-like symptoms.
Genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds produce similar seeds. These seeds have been developed for specific character traits and are patented. These seeds are generally more expensive and come with a prohibition against the producer saving the seed for his own use or for sale as seed. The large agro-industry thus can control the type of seed produced on many farms.
Virtually all field corn, soybeans and canola produced in North America is GMO. Organically certified products cannot be GMO and must be produced under a number of rigorous regulated requirements such as specified distances from other fields.
The long-term health effects of consuming foods containing GMO’s are not well known. One such concern is the insertion of a nut gene into soybeans to increase oil production that has lead to a significant increase in the incidence of allergies to soy products. Soy is included in a vast array of processed food, limiting the food choice for those sensitive to soybeans.
Some of our favourite garden crops can only be reliably produced if started plants are used. It is economical and interesting to start plants indoors with one’s own chosen seeds. Many people like to buy 12 packs of small plants such as tomatoes early in the season and grow them in individual pots. When the outdoor planting season arrives, these plants may have become large, well rooted and sometimes already producing. Locally grown nursery plants are readily available from local greenhouses, usually providing plants adapted to conditions in east-central Saskatchewan.
Greenhouse grown plants may be produced from heirloom, hybrid or GMO seeds. If purchasing seed, information is usually printed on the seed package and should be checked to determine how it was produced.
Choosing the most appropriate seed for growing food is usually rewarding and fruitful. First time or inexperienced gardeners can benefit further by getting to know an experienced local gardener and having that person act as a garden mentor, ensuring a successful productive experience.