A quick visit to any gardening group or page on Facebook will tell the casual observer that there is great confusion about what is safe to plant, grow, eat, and save in the home garden. That is not surprising, since more and more people are joining the safe, sustainable, local slow food movement, or some part of that movement. My goal here is to clarify some common terms for the beginning gardener and eliminate some confusion so that our efforts to have conversations and share knowledge and experience will be more productive.
Organic: The definition of organic has changed over the years, and there are a lot of misunderstandings about what it means. Today, the organic label on food simply means that the farm producing the food has asked and paid for a certification from a third party agency that it complies with organic standards. Those standards are basically that the farmer will use only approved chemicals to spray and approved growing methods. What? You thought organic food was grown without pesticides. No. Sorry. Organically approved pesticides are used, but these are tested and pose less threat to the food supply than synthetic chemicals. There are other certifications, including Certified Naturally Grown, and in many states, only very large farming operations are eligible for an Organic certification and many of the certified farms are owned by large agri-business corporations.
Hybrids: Hybrids are not bad and the term is not related in any way to GMO. Almost everything we plant in the home garden was at one time a hybrid, otherwise there would be only one or two varieties of each thing. Without getting too technical, a hybrid is simply a cross between two varieties of the same fruit or vegetable. This can happen naturally, but most often has been done intentionally by man. Hybrid plants and seeds that we buy for the home garden are F1 hybrids, meaning they are first generation crosses, and the “cross” is not yet stable. They have been crossed to produce the most desirable traits of the parent plants and those traits will usually only run true in the first generation. You can save these seeds, but they will not produce true, and will almost certainly revert to the traits of one of the original plants. The seeds may also be infertile, but not usually.
If you don’t plan to save seeds, there is really no reason for you not to plant hybrids. Indeed, some people prefer to grow hybrids, because they are often disease resistant and can be hardier and easier to grow.
Many of our favorite heirloom tomatoes, like Mortgage Lifters and Rutgers, are stabilized versions of hybrids.
Open Pollinated: When you see the designation “OP” on seeds, this means they are open pollinated, or not intentionally hybridized. These seeds are the ones you want to save, but be aware that they may cross-pollinate in your garden with your other favorites and give you something slightly different, a natural hybrid, unless you take steps to prevent cross-pollination. Methods to prevent that cross-pollination are available on several gardening sites.
Heirloom: This is a term you often hear about tomatoes, but there are other heirloom fruits and vegetables. An heirloom is an open pollinated variety with a story and a history. Many seed catalogs will give you the story of the heirloom seeds and plants they offer. There is no real agreement on how long a variety has to have been available to be considered an heirloom, but they all have some provenance, meaning their history has been documented in some way.
GMO: We tend to use this term a lot lately, and the misinformation abounds. That is not surprising, since it is a relatively new, and sometimes frightening thing. You could read about GMO’s for days and still not quite get it, so I will only touch on the basics here. A GMO is a genetically modified organism, a creation of science, not nature. Monsanto is certainly not the only company that uses GMO technology, but it is easier to use that name to refer to the industry. GMO technology is used for many things, but we most often hear about it in connection to seeds. Monsanto found that it could insert DNA from unrelated organisms into seed to create certain traits they think are desirable. The most familiar trait that we know about is Roundup resistance. Roundup is an herbicide that kills just about every plant in its path, so Monsanto created corn, soybeans and rape (canola) that is resistant to Roundup, and convinced farmers to buy it so they would also buy Roundup, a Monsanto product.
The debate over GMO seed is raging world wide, with conflicting data being released daily, most of it not currently relevant to the home gardener. The political and ethical questions are huge. I suggest that the two main problems with GMO seed are:
GMO food products have not been tested for any great length of time and there is some evidence that the tests were not conducted in an open and transparent manner, with negative results being hidden;
The increased use of Roundup is having a huge impact on the pollinators we all depend on for the health and productivity of our gardens and farms.
GMOs are not currently available to home gardeners, so when you get your beautiful seed catalogs and make your garden plan, you are not going to accidentally buy GMO seeds, but you may still want to stop and think about whether or not your non-GMO seed was produced by a company owned by Monsanto or another large agri-business. Your seed can be organic, open-pollinated and heirloom and still be enriching the companies that are selling GMO seed to our corn, soybean and canola farmers. I suggest you go online and find those companies that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge.
I am not a scientist, and the information in this short article is certainly not comprehensive. My hope was to provide new gardeners with a starting point to do their own research and make decisions that make them proud and happy with their home gardens, and their ability to provide their families with safe, healthy, delicious food.
~Debbie Seagraves is a home gardener and moderates the Facebook Gardening Group, Debbie’s Back Porch.