Posted by: Dennis Hinkamp on Jan 17, 2011
By: Jerry L. Goodspeed, Utah State University Extension horticulturist
Seed catalogs often contain confusing terms. For example, the term “easy-to-grow” can be misleading. The term implies that growing the plant shouldn’t be difficult. In my experience, however, what it really means is the plant will only survive if planted in a greenhouse, cared for by a professional gardener and, even then, the odds are two-to-one it won’t live more than two weeks.
Other terms may be less confusing, but it is helpful to know exactly what they mean. The following is a list of terms frequently used in gardening catalogs and by horticulturists.
* Hybrid: Recently this term has been used when referring to a type of automobile. However, those in the horticulture business lay first claim to this word. Most seeds sold in garden catalogs are hybrids. This means they have been artificially cross-pollinated. Typically the pollen from one variety is used to pollinate another variety, and the cross develops a hybrid seed. This process is called hybridization.
Plants are hybridized to improve their nutrition, flavor, production and resistance to pests. Commercial plants are hybridized to improve their ability to be mechanically harvested and successfully shipped. This probably explains why home-grown vegetables have a superior flavor to those purchased off-season in the grocery store. The seeds of hybrid plants are more expensive than other seeds and cannot be collected and expected to grow the same variety.
Hybridized plants are not classified as genetically altered organisms. The genetic makeup of the pollen or seeds has not been altered — pollination has simply been controlled. Over time, many hybrid seeds have been created by Mother Nature. Many unusual-looking squash plants growing in gardens are seeds that germinated from last year’s hybrid squash left in the garden.
* Open Pollination: This term refers to plants that are pollinated in a field by whatever pollen happens to wander by. Normally, they have a genetically dominant gene that keeps them, for the most part, true to type. There may be some genetic variation because the pollen is different, but usually the seeds can be collected and the same variety grown. These seeds are fairly inexpensive.
* Heirloom: Some plants are given an heirloom designation because they are an older variety. This is just a nice way of saying the plant is an “oldie but goodie.” Most purists believe that for a variety to be called “heirloom,” it had to have been grown before 1940 and been passed down from one generation to another.
Tomatoes are the most popular plant when it comes to heirloom varieties. All heirlooms are open-pollinated and their seeds can be collected from year to year.
* Organic Seed: Most seeds come from plants grown in large fields using fertilizer to encourage healthy growth, and available (organic and synthetic) pest control options are used to control insects and diseases. If you are worried about this practice, seeds are now available from plants grown with close regulation on what can be used to fertilize plants and control pests. The term “organic seed” does not mean that pesticides did not come in contact with the plant; it simply means that any pesticides and fertilizers used were certified to be organic in nature. These seeds are typically more expensive.
Knowing the terms found in catalogs and in garden centers can be helpful. One last term to be aware of is “carefree color all season long.” The color they are referring to is most likely brown.