First, let me address the subject of “organic” seed. For years, the word “organic” loosely referred to plants produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers but there did not exist any real standard or regulation. In 2002, the USDA established the National Organic Program (NOP) which set national standards for the term “Certified Organic”. Seeds that are certified under this system are approved through a regular inspection process by a USDA accredited certifier. The seed packages will carry the USDA organic symbol.
It is important for all organic gardeners to know that they do not need certified organic seed. If you maintain a healthy soil, follow organic gardening techniques and when necessary, use organic fertilizers, you are qualified as an organic gardener. Should any problems arise, there are non-toxic pest and disease controls, certified organic and readily available in Garden Centers.
Any seed labeled as “treated” has been treated with synthetic, non-organic pesticides or fungicides but it is very rare to find this type of seed in a Garden Center. That being said, only if you are actually selling your crops as “organic”, will you need to use only certified organic seed and save the packages to either obtain or retain your organic certification.
Unfortunately, plants are pretty sloppy when it comes to reproduction. They crossbreed with plants outside of their own species, in some cases really distant relatives, to create hybrids.
Hybrids have been around for well over 100 years. They actually occur in nature without any human intervention. In the mid-19th century, Gregor Mendel started “controlled hybridization” in Austria. Today, hybrids of all kinds are available to not only gardeners but commercial growers as well.
A hybrid plant can be identified by the “X” in their botanical name. For example, Leyland cypress (X Cupressocyparis leylandii) is a naturally occurring hybrid of Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and Nootka cypress (Callitropsis nootkatensis).
Forever, plant breeders have taken advantage of this “sloppy reproduction” to cross different parent plants and create hybrid babies with more desirable traits. Many popular fruits like tangelos and nectarines are a good example of hybrid crosses. Tomato breeders are constantly seeking improved disease resistance, earlier maturity, better taste, color, etc. A breeder selects two specific varieties with traits he wants to match and cross pollinates them to create an F1 (first generation) hybrid. All of this experimenting takes an enormous amount of time (usually years) not to mention expense.
Anyway you look at it, the process of creating a hybrid is a natural act. It could have happened by wind, insects or other means. Hybrid plants produce viable seed that in most cases can be planted like any other seed. It is important to understand that the results of planting seeds taken from hybrid plants will be unpredictable. In many cases, the seeds will produce plants unlike the plant they were saved from. The only way to maintain the traits of the F1 hybrid is to cross the original two parent strains again. This is what seed companies do every year to be able to offer the same hybrid seed again and again.
GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms), on the other hand were implanted with genetic material from different life-forms, maybe bacteria, insects or other form of life. Both hybrids and GMO’s are products of genetic manipulation but they are very different: the hybrids rely on a natural process where the GMO’s are completely the result of human technology. At this time, there are no “GMO” seeds available for retail sale in the United States.
In order for OP seeds to form, pollen must be transferred from the male organ of the flower to the female organ. This transfer of pollen must happen regardless of whether the male and female parts are on the same flower (“perfect”) or if the flowers are “imperfect” with male and female parts on different flowers or different plants. This transferring of pollen can happen by wind, pollinating insects, birds, even a gardener with a paintbrush.
When seed is saved from an open pollinated plant, the new plant, next season, will have the identical characteristics of the original plant and its fruit will remain the same. The problem here is that your open pollinated plants must be isolated. If you have many varieties growing in the same garden (tomatoes are a classic example), a bee or other insect could transfer pollen from one variety to the other and be “cross pollinated” causing the next generation to be a hybrid.
An heirloom seed is simply an open pollinated variety that has been in cultivation for over 50 years. Over so much time, the variety has become adapted to a particular location and produces the same desired fruit or other traits dependably year after year. The question always arises as to whether heirlooms are better tasting, easier to grow, more disease resistant, etc. The answer is NOT ALWAYS! Many heirloom varieties are planted outside of the area where they originated and will not do as well. Also, certain negative traits of some heirlooms have been bred away with the creation of certain hybrids.
To further complicate matters, weather conditions could change the ultimate fruit taste, flower formation, etc. We experience this situation often in the Philadelphia area. Early spring warmth and then more severe winter conditions, excessive wet months and hot, dry summer months are just a few examples that can alter the growth and production of our plants and the taste of our fruit.
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