Hay Fever

Open Pollinated Plants vs. Heirlooms

Amy HillIn my previous post, I described the basics of differentiating between open pollinated plants, F1 hybrids, and GMOs. This time we'll look a little more closely at the differences in open pollinated plants: heirlooms, heritage varieties, and modern heirlooms.

What’s the difference between an open-pollinated seed and an heirloom seed?

Heirlooms are seeds of plants that have been tended, selected, shared, and handed down for generations within a particular location or community. Some seed companies categorize heirlooms by the age of the variety (e.g., if seeds of a particular plant have been recorded as being handed down for 100 years or more). Seed Savers Exchange classifies heirlooms by tracing a plant’s documented history of preservation, emphasizing the plant's ties to a particular group of people.


For example, Seed Savers Exchange founder Diane Ott Whealey's great-grandparents brought some morning glory seeds from Bavaria to Iowa in the 1800s. Upon her grandfather's death, Diane founded the Seed Savers Exchange to continue this hand-me-down tradition of conservation, and Grandpa Ott's morning glories are found in gardens across the country, including mine. Seed Savers Exchange further differentiates between heirlooms and "heritage" varieties, which are "old-timey" plants that may have no particular connection to a particular people. And there are "modern heirlooms," or modern open-pollinated varieties, in various stages of emerging tradition, being bred and selected by a handful of seed companies who care deeply about plant genetic diversity and stewardship. 

So to summarize:

– Open-pollinated seeds are pollinated by insects, birds, wind, or other means, whose offspring closely resemble their parents from generation to generation. OPs may be of any age or tradition.

– Heritage varieties are old, traditional open-pollinated plants, that may or may not be connected to a group of people. Heritage varieties are open-pollinated, but not all OPs are heritage varieties.

– Heirloom varieties are old, traditional open-pollinated plants that are variously defined as being handed down by generations in a particular location or context, and/or which may be greater than 100 years old. Heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all OPs are heirlooms. Heirlooms are heritage varieties.

"Modern heirlooms" is another name for open-pollinated plants bred more recently (say, post-advent of commercial agriculture, up until today), whose tradition among groups of people or locations is emerging. They're neither heirlooms in the traditional sense, nor are they heritage varieties, but they are being bred in the same tradition and may become heirlooms or heritage varieties in years to come.

The Basics of Seed Saving

Amy HillMy local public library is starting a seed library. In honor of its launch, I’ll be exploring the basics of seed starting and saving, learning about which plants are best for particular applications, and how to plan and prepare for a successful growing season.

Successful seed saving begins with choosing seeds that have the potential to be saved (not in the religious sense). Seeds of any plant – herb, vegetable, or flower – are either open-pollinated (OP) or hybrids. Only open-pollinated seeds can be saved successfully.


What is an open-pollinated plant?

Open-pollinated plants are plants that are allowed to cross-pollinate by wind, insects, birds and other means, or they may self-pollinate. Over time and with careful selection, open-pollinated varieties can stabilize, meaning that the parents and offspring naturally share similar traits, closely resemble one another, and are easily distinguished from others in its species (e.g., one variety of tomato, like ‘Brandywine,’ is clearly distinguished from another, like ‘Cherokee Purple’ or ‘Green Zebra’).


What is an F1 hybrid?

Hybrids are made by specifically crossing two different species or varieties. Growers breed commercial hybrids to produce a specific trait, like uniform appearance, concise ripening periods (useful for large-scale machine harvesting), resistance to bruising, or long shelf life. Many of the traits found in modern hybrids were selected with large-scale commercial agriculture in mind.

F1 refers to the first generation produced from a specific cross. If seeds are saved from the fruits of F1 hybrid plants, they will not be “true to type”; that is, they won’t reliably resemble the parent plant. To get a similar plant to the one that produced those fruits, a gardener would have to cross the original parents again. F1 hybrids are typically vigorous plants and good producers, but new seeds must be purchased year after year.

Are hybrids the same as genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

No. While hybrids are made by crossing distinctly different species or varieties, GMOs are practically defined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety as living organisms that possess “a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.” (Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, Article 3, “Living Modified Organism”). (While the Cartagena Protocol does not specifically mention the term “genetically modified organism,” its term “living modified organism” defined in Article 3 is essentially synonymous.)

In practical terms, this means that GMOs are organisms that contain genetic combinations that couldn’t occur in nature. Think back to your grade-school biology classes: Remember learning taxonomy (kingdom, phylum/division, class, order, family, genus, species)? In GMOs, sometimes genes from organisms belonging to different kingdoms are shared, as in the case of Bt corn, corn genetically engineered to produce its own pesticide. To produce Bt corn, bioengineers inserted certain genes of Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium often used in mosquito controls, into the corn’s genetic material.

If hybrids are vigorous plants and good producers, and seeds are inexpensive to purchase, why should I bother trying to save seed from open-pollinated plants?

Open-pollinated seeds contribute to genetic diversity, which is important to help plants adapt to changing climates and related environmental factors (changing pests and diseases, etc.). Over time, a gardener may improve a variety so that it is particularly well adapted to the local environment, potentially reducing that gardener’s inputs (i.e., saving that gardener time and money!) to a crop, relative to non-adapted varieties.
Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

A quick comparison of open-pollinated vs. hybrid seeds and plants:

Open-pollinated seeds


F1 Hybrids

Includes, but are not limited to, heirloom varieties.

Are relatively new to the ecological scene, having developed with the advent of commercial agriculture.

Are pollinated by wind, birds, insects, etc., in an uncontrolled way.

Are made by human intervention, deliberately crossing two distinct species or varieties.

Are more genetically diverse as a result of this open and uncontrolled pollination.

Possess the genetics of the two parents, which may themselves have been crossed back with one of their parents.

Will not all look or perform the same.

Are very consistent in performance and appearance. Are typically vigorous and good producers.

Have not been bred for specific traits, but may have been selected over time for taste, resiliency, disease resistance or other factors.

Have almost always been bred by a grower to have specific traits.

Are more likely to be well adapted to their particular region and its challenges.

May not be well adapted to a given region and might be susceptible to particular disease or insect problems, potentially requiring more pesticides or active management.

How do I know if I’m growing open-pollinated or hybrid seeds?

If you ordered the seeds from a catalog, look in the catalog entry or on the grower’s website. Hybrid types will usually have the words “hybrid” or “F1” in the description. These words may also be on the seed packet.

You may also do an Internet search of your seed variety’s name (what’s enclosed in single parentheses on the packet, like ‘Brandywine’ or ‘Big Beef’) to find out whether it’s open-pollinated or a hybrid.

Cornell University maintains a public, citizen-science database called Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners. Home gardeners throughout the United States can search the database to find varieties well suited for their growing areas, including both hybrids and open-pollinated plants. Creating a login allows gardeners to provide their own reviews of the varieties they grow and to help build understanding of regional adaptability of different varieties.

In another post, I’ll write about the differences between open-pollinated plants and heirloom varieties.

For more information on open-pollinated plants, hybrids and GMOs, see the following resources:

Organic Seed Alliance

Open Pollination: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Bt corn: Health and the Environment (fact sheet), Colorado State University Extension

Snow Gardening

Amy HillIt hasn't snowed here for years. Today four and a half inches of snow have fallen, and it hasn't stopped yet. But I'm itching to be in the garden.

Fortunately for me, it's only 10 weeks until the average last frost. That means I can start sowing a few things, both indoors and out.


Just before it began to snow, I sowed some seeds of Oriental poppy, Papaver orientale 'Coral Reef.' Oriental poppies can take the freeze-thaw cycles, and they much prefer direct sowing to transplantation. That said, I'm hedging my bets and planting a few seeds in coco-fiber pots, which like peat pots can be directly planted into the ground, minimizing root disturbance.

Indoors, I'm sowing seeds of Verbena bonariensis and Physalis 'Cossack Pineapple' ground cherry. Both require (or appreciate, anyway) a longer head start than the typical 6 to 8 weeks of most vegetables. And more veggies and open-pollinated annuals are waiting their turns; I'll profile some of the ones I'm most excited about in the coming weeks.

Testing Seed Now to Avoid Frustration Later

It’s 11 weeks to the last frost in my neighborhood, and I’ve been gripped by seed-starting fever. My family will not thank me if I take up any more room in the refrigerator for my seeds than I already am, so before I can place orders with my favorite seed catalogues, I need to test the seeds’ viability.

Seed viability

Seed viability is another term for the likelihood of a packet of seed to germinate. Viability varies among genera. Many root crops’ seeds, such as onions or carrots, remain viable for one year, while some melons may be viable for longer than 4 years. If kept in proper conditions (low light, low temperature, and low humidity), seed may remain viable for many years past their average.

A simple way to test seed viability

To test whether your leftover seeds are viable, gather together the following supplies:

  • The seed packet
  • Paper toweling
  • Plastic sandwich bag with zippable closure, or a clear plastic container with a lid.
  • Misting bottle of clean water
  •  Masking tape and pen or pencil
  1. Lay out a sheet of paper toweling and place some seeds onto the towel. Ten seeds, or a multiple of 10 for small seeds, makes for convenient estimating.
  2. Lightly mist the seeds and the paper towel with water.
  3. Fold the towel in half, and then in half again. 
  4. Lightly mist the folded towel one more time.
  5. Slide the folded towel into the sandwich bag or plastic container, and label it using the masking tape. Note the seed contents and the date on which you prepared the sample.
  6. Keep the bag or container in a warm place, but out of direct sunlight. After a few days (about five to seven, but not any longer), you’ll be able to check the germination rate.

Germination and potting up

Remove the paper towel from its bag and gently unfold it.

Germinated seeds

The photo above shows an excellent germination rate, and indicates the seed is still quite viable. But they’re not going to get much further growing on a paper towel, so it’s time to pot them up.

The seedlings at this stage have only their cotyledons, or seed leaves. As fragile as these seed leaves look, they’re more resilient than the stem, which will be easily crushed by handling. Grasp the leaves and gently but firmly pull them up from the paper towel. Some of the roots here have grown through the towel, so we’ll tackle the easy ones first.

  1. Prepare a clean seed flat with sterile seed-starting mix. Moisten the mix and tamp it down well.
  2. Make a slit or trench in the seed flat using a spoon or knife. Holding the seedlings by their leaves, lay them into the trench up to where the leaves fork from the stem.seeds in trench in flat
  3. Gently firm the soil back over the stem and root. Follow the same procedure for additional seedlings, but don’t overcrowd the flat. I’ve allowed six seedlings to a flat 3 inches wide by 6 inches long.
  4. Keep the flat warm (65-70 degrees Fahrenheit) and well lit, either in a sunny windowsill or under a grow light. A fine dusting of sand, vermiculite, or even chicken grit can help to fend off damping-off.

If any of the seedlings have grown through the substrate (paper towel), there’s no need to wrestle them. Using a pair of scissors, trim small seed mats and handle the seedlings by them. The mats can be planted along with the seedlings, and will eventually compost.

  1. As before, prepare a seed flat with moistened, sterile seed-starting mixture.seed flat
  2. Guide the blade of the knife or scissors between the sprouted seeds. Cut a small section of towel to support the seedling. You can hold up the towel to a light if necessary, to help you find the roots’ paths. seed mat  
  3. Plant the seedlings, giving adequate space to each one. Don’t overcrowd the flat. Gently firm the roots against the soil. seed mats planted   
  4. Top the seedlings off with fresh seed-starting mix, up to the base of the seed leaves.
  5. Water gently and set in a bright, warm space.

Check the seedlings daily and do not let them dry out. Watering from the bottom will help to prevent damping-off disease.  When the seedlings have developed one or two sets of true leaves, they may be potted up again.


Good luck with the growing season ahead!

Don't Be Too Tidy

Amy HillNow that fall is well and truly upon us (at least, for those of us who live in places where seasons seem to change), it's time to focus on garden clean-up.

But don't be too thorough: Leave some plants with decorative seed heads or berries so that birds can easily find food for the winter.

Nandina Berry Cluster

Like the rest of us, birds need some variety in their diets. While many of us enjoy setting out bird feeders in the winter, encouraging them to forage in our gardens is both healthy for them, and good for our gardens. If birds become accustomed to finding food and shelter sources in your garden in the winter, you can be assured they will return in warmer seasons to help you control your insect populations.

Additional tips for encouraging birds to your winter garden:

Joe Pye Seed Head

  • If you have native perennial plants or grasses in your yard, don't be too hasty to cut them back. Native plants provide especially good food sources for local bird populations.

  • Leave a bit of leaf litter in your garden. Leaf litter attracts insects, another important food source for birds.

  • Provide fresh water: If you have a bird bath, keep it clean. Wash it weekly using mild soap, and rinse well.

  • Give them shelter: Any dead or pruned limbs may be stacked or piled in the garden to provide cover for birds in your garden. Establishing bird feeders near brush piles or dense evergreen shrubs like hollies, cedars, or most conifers, allows small birds to take shelter quickly if hawks or other predators make appearances.

  • Growing Garlic for Beginners

    Amy HillIn my household, we eat a lot of garlic. 

    Garlic is great for your health. It contains cancer-fighting chemicals, relaxes blood vessels, and increases blood flow. But an increasing amount of garlic in supermarkets comes from China, which produces 75% of the world's supply of the pungent herb. Concern about levels and types of pesticides and soil contaminants found on food imports, both fresh and processed, is causing many people, including me, to look for safe and reliable sources of food. So I am starting to grow my own. 

    garlic shipment

    I was late in placing my order this year so I didn't get the specific variety I wanted, but I think the organic 'Red Toch' softneck garlic I got from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Virginia, will be more than satisfactory.

    Red Toch organic garlic

    I'm mixing up my plantings this year, starting some in containers and mixing some in with ornamentals in established beds. 

    I started with a clean, frost-proof container, to which I added a mixture of potting compost, perlite, and sand, about three-quarters of the way to the top.

    container ready for planting

    To that, I mixed in a tiny bit of lime per the planting instructions, as well as a quart of worm castings and some additional homemade compost. 

    compost and worm castings

    I planted the individual cloves about six inches apart, with skins attached. The skins help protect the cloves from rotting in the ground. Then I topped off the container with an inch and a half of the compost and castings mix. 

    container planted

    Keeping the garlic watered is essential during the growth period. It's been dry lately, so I'm hand-watering the containers and topping them off with a mulch of shredded leaves and bark to conserve the moisture it does get. 

    container finished

    And now I wait. Between now and spring, I'll be reading up on harvesting and curing.

    Working Cleverly With What You've Got

    Amy HillLast week, I took a tour of Montrose, a nearby property listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The owners, Nancy and Craufurd Goodwin, have maintained and expanded the site's original plantings for almost 40 years. 

    The Goodwins depend heavily on the "right plant, right place" concept to minimize the amount of labor that must be done on the 61-acre property. As a result, they do little supplemental watering. While they don't have rain barrels or cisterns on the property, they do collect rainwater for the few plantings that do require extra water.

    Front of House

    They collect it in old copper kettles. Copper has natural properties that kill mosquito larvae.  

    Copper Kettle

    I was impressed by this ingenious solution to an important problem. Gardeners know about the importance of water conservation, but many of us try to find a safe balance between good water conservation practices and keeping a healthy, mosquito-free environment. This kettle technique works brilliantly at Montrose, where it does its job discreetly and effectively. Most people probably don't have numerous large copper kettles stashed in the shed. But if you are one of the lucky ones who has one to hand, know that you have an elegant, mosquito-repelling water source at your service. 

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