Meagan Francis

Meagan Francis

Sow Seeds Evenly on Top of Potting Soil
Sow seeds evenly on top of potting soil mix. Some seeds will need to be covered with a thin layer of soil.

While planning my first vegetable garden twelve years ago, I picked up a seed catalog and started flipping.

Two hours later, I put the catalog down, bleary-eyed and confused. How could there possibly be so many tomatoes to choose from? Should I choose a “Big Boy” or a “Mortgage Lifter” or another of the staggering number of options? Eventually, I made the decision by closing my eyes and pointing at the page.

True story.

If you’re facing the dilemma of choosing from hundreds of plant varieties, the first way to narrow down your options is by deciding whether you’ll choose heirloom or hybrid plants. It can seem mysterious, but the difference is pretty simple:

Heirloom vegetables or seeds refer to any type of seed that has been grown for a number of years (since 1940 or before seems to be the general rule) and passed down from gardener to gardener. Heirloom plants are "open pollinated," which means the plants are pollinated without human intervention, so by wind or insect pollination.

Though seed catalogs often sell “heirloom” plants, purists will tell you that true heirloom seeds are generally found through seed exchanges or passed directly down from other gardeners.

Plants grown from heirloom seeds may not be as predictable as hybrid plants, but many gardeners prefer them for their flavor, and many also appreciate the idea of preserving the vegetable’s heritage.

Hybrid plants are created when breeders cross-pollinate different plants in order to maximize their best features, such as yield, size, resistance to disease, and taste. Seed saved from hybrid plants isn't likely to produce a new generation with the same qualities. Instead, the second generation may look something more like one of the parent plants used to create the hybrid.

Hybrids tend to be reliable, and will produce uniform produce – and a lot of it, generally – but you may lose out on flavor. And you’ll have to shell out money next year to buy new seed.

Keep in mind that hybrid seeds are not the same as genetically-modified (GMO) seeds! Major seed companies like Burpee and Gurney’s promise not to sell genetically-modified seeds, and this Safe Seed Resource list links to dozens of companies that sell GMO-free as well as organic seeds.


Tomatoes for Containers 16 photos


3 Comments About this Article

  • Tia Marie Robertson
    How do I know if my Burpee or Ferry-Morse seeds are hybrids or not? I purchased a lot of seed this year (first year in a new house with an actual garden area to work in, instead of a condo patio). I was hoping to keep the seeds from this years harvest, and replant next year. Do these companies have some sort of coding I can reference to find out if this is possible now? Thanks so much for the info! Great article!

    Posted 8 months ago

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  • felder
    Good question, Tina Marie. But the truth is, you can't tell from the seeds themselves, you just have to do a little research on each variety of plant you got. Many modern seed-grown plants will come "true" from seed and may eventually become heirlooms. But as it was pointed out in the article, the plants must be "open pollinated" meaning they will set seed all by themselves without pollen from other plants. Most of the time the seeds will be described in the catalogs or on the labels as hybrids, which is your main clue.

    Posted 8 months ago

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  • felder
    And by the way, as the co-author of Passalong Plants, a book about shared heirloom plants, I can assure you that heirloom seed companies don't have a lock on heirloom plants. If it is labeled correctly, any plant that is considered heirloom will come true, even if it is bought off a seed rack at a store...

    Posted 8 months ago

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