How to choose seeds for your garden: Open-pollinated, heirloom, hybrid and more

February 7, 2021

Getting on the gardening wagon and wondering how to choose seeds for your garden? We can help!

How to choose seeds for your garden - child's hand with an extended index finger pushes a seed into soil. Some seeds are sprouting plants about an inch tall.

Open-pollinated, heirloom, hybrid… seed lingo can be a bit daunting, especially if you’re new to gardening or growing from seed. But we’re here to help you choose seeds for your garden! Here are some things to keep in mind as you search for seeds.

What does open-pollinated mean?

Open-pollinated (OP) seeds are produced by a plant pollinated by bees or other insects, bats, birds, wind, or even humans. Some plants, like beans, even pollinate themselves. When planted, the seed that formed via this type of fertilization will grow a plant that looks and acts like its parent plants.

Are you a seed saver (or hoping to be)? OP crops are ideal for seed saving because you’ll know what to expect from the seeds you save. OP plant varieties are also genetically diverse, so there’s variation within an OP population of plants. This variation means plants can adapt to your local conditions if you save seed and replant year after year. By selecting and saving seeds from the plants that grow best, you are part of the process.

Farmers have done this type of selection for millennia—looking for flavour, fruit size, robustness, earliness, and so on— which is how we now have an incredible diversity of crops.

Farmers are still doing this today—and you can too!

Already know what you want? Choose seeds for your garden with this list of local seed producers.

What is an heirloom variety?

Every seed has a story. An heirloom variety (sometimes referred to as a heritage variety) is a seed that has a history of being passed down through generations of seed savers. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirloom.

There is no hard and fast rule for what makes an heirloom variety. Some seed companies base their criteria on a variety being at least 50 years old. Others, like our friends at Seed Savers Exchange, take steps to verify the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed.

So if you start saving seeds now, perhaps there are some future heirlooms in your collection!

What are hybrid seeds?

You’ll usually see hybrid seeds labelled as F1, meaning “filial one.” An F1 hybrid is the result of a deliberate crossing of two different varieties of a crop to produce an offspring with specific, desired traits. These F1 offspring have lots of potential benefits for farmers growing them, like improved vigor and hardiness, early maturity, or disease resistance.

But the seeds produced from a hybrid crop will be pretty unpredictable growers. Instead of behaving like the hybrid plant they came from, they’ll have some assortment of characteristics from the hybrid’s parent plants—for those keeping track, their grandparent plants—or even random traits from their more distant ancestors that you didn’t ask for.

If you try to save the seeds that grow inside the hybrid and plant them out next year, you may be surprised by what grows. These seeds won’t produce uniform offspring that look like the plant on the seed package you bought. In other words they don’t grow true to type. This may not bother you and could be a fun biology experiment to try in your garden. But to grow the same plant again, you’ll need to buy seed every year from the company that created the hybrid.

So if you want to grow something you can save seeds from and grow again next year—and we really encourage you to try it—you’re better off with open-pollinated seeds.

Are hybrid seeds genetically modified organisms (GMO)? Nope! As such, they can be certified organic.

What else should I look for as I choose seeds for my garden?

Organic/ecologically grown seeds

Look for untreated seeds grown without the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides. A certified organic label is one way of verifying this. But not all small-scale seed producers who grow seeds in Earth-friendly ways have organic certification. If the seed company’s website or catalogue doesn’t say they use organic or ecological practices, ask them!

Open-pollinated, heirloom and hybrid seeds can be organic.

Pollinator friendly seeds

Choosing organic or pesticide/herbicide-free seeds will benefit your local pollinators. There are 855 species of native bees in what’s known as Canada, and many are suffering due to climate change, habitat loss and disease. Since many native bee species have evolved alongside native plant species and have a particular affinity for them, you can go the extra mile and look for seeds of plants native to your region. Learn LOTS more about this from our friends at Seeds of Diversity Canada.

Some—but by no means all—hybrids seeds will become plants that do not produce nectar and are therefore not super useful for pollinators. So do your research if you’re opting for hybrid seeds.

Fun seeds

Open-pollinated seeds have been grown, saved and cherished by families, gardeners, Indigenous communities, and farmers for ages. This has led to an abundance of OP seed diversity. Unique varieties with fun names, colourful fruits, epic tales, cultural and spiritual significance, and beautiful flavour abound.

So when you’re looking for seeds, have fun, try something new, and above all, respect seeds and the people who grow them, save them and keep them alive.