Get to Know Your Seeds: A Seed Type Guide

We’ve had an influx of calls inquiring about the specifics of seed labeling—questions like “What is the difference between sprouting and microgreens seeds and traditional garden vegetable seeds?” and “Are heirloom seeds and open-pollinated seeds the same thing?” and a slew of others.

seed symbol legend

We know it can be overwhelming looking at all the varieties of seeds and their types, reading terms like “microgreens seeds” and “sprouting seeds”, "treated" and "untreated seeds", and "heirloom" and "open-pollinated"—you just hope that you’ll pick the right ones for you. We hope that the following article will help you understand seed identifiers and how it can help you purchase the best seed for you and your style of gardening.

Sprouting Seeds & Microgreens Seeds – Botanically speaking, there is no difference between sprouting seeds and microgreen seeds; their names just refer to the growing method they are most well suited. Sprouting seeds are only grown in water, and once the sprouts are ready, the entire plant is eaten. These seeds are most often organically produced to prevent any contact with pesticides. Our line of sprouting seeds is what we think are the best, cleanest, and frankly, tastiest seeds for sprouting available.

Alfalfa Sprouts
(Figure 1) Alfalfa Sprouts

“Microgreening” is the method of growing your seeds in a medium and allowing seedlings to mature a bit before harvesting. Microgreens seeds are selected because of a varieties’ vibrant color and bold flavor as a seedling. Think of microgreens as baby vegetables. Seeds that germinate at the same time and grow uniformly are prime candidates for microgreening. For example, Hong Vit Radish, is a variety of radish that doesn’t produce much of a fruit at the end of its life cycle, but it does produce a lovely red and green microgreen that is packed with spicy radish flavor. While most seeds can be grown as a microgreen, there are some that are not well-suited such as any plant in the Solanaceae family, also known as the nightshade family, contain alkaloids that make them unpalatable, and their full-grown leaves are known to be poisonous. We have done all the work for you by identifying good sprouting and microgreens candidates on our website and in our catalog.

Hong Vit Radish Microgreens
(Figure 2) Hong Vit Radish Microgreens

Treated Seed – There are several kinds of seed treatments in the seed business. While treatments can vary, the most common treated seed we offer is a fungicide which helps to keep the seed from rotting in the ground in unstable spring weather when soil conditions are less than ideal—usually too moist. All treated seed is clearly marked as being treated in the title of the seed, i.e. Treated Blue Lake Bush Beans, and treated seed is typically purchased by our larger farm-based customers.

Pelleted & Multi-pelleted Seed – When using a mechanism of some kind to plant their seeds, farmers and gardeners will turn to pelleted seeds, which are seeds usually coated in inert clay. Very small seeds that are difficult to handle are coated to make them more manageable by machines and by people for accurate and easy sowing. For example, some gardeners prefer working with pelleted carrot seeds because carrot seeds are so tiny and difficult to plant accurately. Commonly, flower seeds are pelleted and multi-pelleted because of their, at times, microscopic size, such as Lobelia seeds as seen in Figure 3.

Raw, Pelleted, and Multi-pelleted seeds
(Figure 3) Lobelia Seed in multi-pelleted, pelleted, and raw form

Multi-pelleted seeds are multiple seeds bound together and coated in inert clay. With several seeds in one pellet, gardeners are ensured germination. The clay will dissolve away, leaving the seeds in ideal conditions to sprout.

Open Pollinated – Simply, open pollinated seeds are seeds produced from crops that are allowed to pollinate naturally by means of insects, birds, wind, and other natural mechanisms.
Bee Pollinating Squash Plant
(Figure 4) Bee Pollinating Squash Plant

Heirloom – There is no officially accepted definition of “heirloom”. In common use, the term is most universally used to indicate an open pollinated seed which has remained consistent for several decades. In our product line, we use the term Heirloom for open pollenated strains with which we have had experience for 30 or more of our 43 years in the seed business. Some people claim heirloom seeds are the “original” variety of a plant, but that’s not necessarily true. If you trace a plant’s genetics back far enough you will find that these now heirloom varieties likely came from an intentional or lucky crossing of two different plants, which leads us to our next term Hybrid.

Hybrid – Hybrids are frequently frowned upon on many social media sites usually because they are confused with GMO, but also frequently because some claim that the seed companies who sell them have engineered the seed to be “sterile” or unable to reproduce so that one cannot save their seed. The social media argument usually goes along the lines of a conspiracy to control the world’s seed supply. Again, not true, especially for us, who pride ourselves on our sustainable practices.

It is true that saving your seed from a hybrid is not advisable, but saved seed will grow, it is just unlikely that your second-generation plant will produce similar results to the original plant. The reason is based in genetics not a board room (which after 43 years we have yet to acquire). Let’s look at dog breeding as an example of hybridization to see what is happening.

Understanding Hybridization Through Dog Breeding
(Figure 5) Understanding Hybridization Through Dog Breeding

When breeding a Poodle with a Labrador, the outcome is a Labradoodle, as seen in Figure 5. The Labradoodle is the hybrid. If we take our “hybrid” puppy and breed him with another dog, even if it also is a Labradoodle, the outcome is unlikely to result in a Labradoodle that looks identical to our first puppy. Still considered labradoodles, but aesthetically these hybrids look very different from each other, as seen in Figure 6.

Not all Labradoodle Hybrids Look \(or bark\) the same!
(Figure 6) Not all Labradoodle Hybrids Look (or bark) the same!

The new 2nd generation puppy may take on more of the Poodle or more of Labrador line. That is the same with hybrid seeds. It is not that they won’t produce, it is just that there is no way to guarantee that the plant won’t revert back to more of one of the parental lines. Like most of the dog breeds we have today, hybrid seeds will become stable as continued generations create a “stable and consistent” population and eventually these seeds may become our grandkids’ heirlooms.

Hybrid plants work the same way—they require several generations of selective crossing to become stable enough to produce uniformly. Planting the seeds produced from a first-generation hybrid (marked as “F1”) plant won’t produce the same crop; it will likely revert back to one of its parents or cross breed with another plant nearby producing something other than the expected production of the previous season. People tend to label these seeds “sterile” because they don’t produce the same results a second time; however, that is only because they don’t have the genetic history behind them like heirloom seeds to be tenacious and to produce a reliable crop year after year. For example, the bicolor corn seen in Figure 7 may revert back to yellow or white corn if it’s saved seeds are planted again next season.

Open-pollinated Plant Hybridization Example
(Figure 7) Open-pollinated Plant Hybridization Example

What is GMO Seed?

The term GMO is a term that is feared, misunderstood, and misused, leading to confusion about what a GMO seed really means. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are living things, including seeds, whose DNA has been engineered outside the natural process of cross pollination to inherit desirable traits.

GMO Plants and Seeds
(Figure 8) GMO Seed Creation Example

When we see anti GMO social media posts or speak with people about what GMO means to them we find that most people don’t really know why GMO is bad they just “know it is”. We are a little concerned that the lack of understanding of GMO is frequently dragging non-GMO seeds, such as Hybrids, into the discussion. We do have a concern with GMO but like most people who spend time really understanding the topic our concern is that the science is moving faster than the protections, labeling laws, and crop protocols. Many of the GMO products being grown today have used very impressive technologies to introduce NON-PLANT BASED genetics into plants. It is this “crossing” of two living organisms that nature would otherwise NOT allow that has us, and many others so concerned.

The Safe Seed Pledge

We believe that everyone should be well aware what is in their food—let alone the genetic make-up! While we are impressed with the technology, we believe that people have the right to know what is in the food they eat. Until more research, crop protections, and clear labeling is created we have chosen not to participate in this part of the market. With us, you’ll never have to worry about GMO’s because we don’t sell them and never will! All of us in the True Leaf Market family have agreed to The Safe Seed Pledge, a declaration which ensures that we “do not knowingly buy, sell, or trade genetically engineered seeds” (taken from the pledge set up by the Council for Responsible Genetics). Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems, and ultimately, healthy people and communities.

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