Seeds: The Difference Between Heirloom and Organic


In the world of  seeds descriptions abound.  Cool season.  Warm season.  Drought tolerant.  GMO-free.  Sustainable.   But what does it all mean?  Do you really know what you are buying?  Two words in particular are frequently used.  They are: organic and heirloom.   But before you place that order, do you know the difference?

USDA organic

USDA organic

When it comes to the word organic, the USDA has strict guidelines.  Or more specifically, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) within the USDA created the definition in 1995.  For a seed company to call their seed organic, they must meet this definition and provide documentation that they have done so.

The first standards rule states, “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.  It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”  It also goes on to say, “Organic is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act.  The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.”

Confused?  Don’t be.  What this boils down to is that plants are raised using earth-friendly practices.  For example, materials such as synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.  For those of you concerned about GMOs, it means that any GMO seed cannot be labeled ‘organic’ regardless of their growing environment.

heirloom tomatoes

heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom is another term that is frequently in the press.   While there is some debate over the specific number of years for a seed (plant) to be considered an heirloom, it is generally accepted that if a seed variety has been in existence 100 years or more… it can be considered an heirloom.  However, this is not the full extent of an heirloom.  An heirloom is also ‘open pollinated’ which means that you can save the seed and the resulting offspring will have the same traits, otherwise known as ‘coming true’ as the previous generation.  With this last part of the definition, it means that an heirloom is not a hybrid.  (If you save seeds from a hybrid plant, the resulting generation will have traits from just one of the parents, where each parent is a different variety, … not both.  And in some instances, seeds from hybrids can be sterile meaning that you won’t get any plants.)

Now for the grand finale.

You can get seed that is both an heirloom variety as well as organic.  This means that the seed variety has been in existence for over 100 years, is also open pollinated (so any saved seed will produce plants just like the previous generation), AND the seeds were from plants grown in an environment that met the USDA standards to be classified as organic.

With so many terms in the media about seeds, you are now armed with an understanding of organic and heirloom.  Now thumb through those catalogs and place your order with confidence.


22 responses »

  1. An item labeled 100% organic must be just that as close to nature as man can get it.
    This not only helps the plants, but the soil as well.
    Constructing these vertical farm units will develop a closed
    in system where waste products, air, water and minerals, needed by plants and vegetables to thrive, will be
    recycled within the building. Unless it has been specifically stated that the ingredients within the packaging s 100%
    organic you might find yourself faced with only some of the items being organic.

    Organic items can today be found at supermarkets and grocery stores.

  2. I’m going to be trying hybrids for the first time this year. I’ve done heirlooms for years, but I never take the time to save seeds, so I guess it’s worth a try. Thanks for taking the time to share this on The 104 Homestead Friday Blog Hop!

      • That is what I thought. I happened to pick up a few packets of seeds a WalMart, I couldn’t help myself, and got mostly the “organic” labeled ones, but a couple heirloom(not marked as organic) as well. Thanks. Glad I found you on the homestead hop.

      • We really love our heirlooms and save quite a bit of seed to use for the following season. Though if I forgot, we will buy organic heirlooms. Have fun planting your seeds!

  3. I live in Bermuda and organic means, well I’m not sure what it means. It’s a sort of–we’ll try to grow stuff without chemicals–kind of pledge (there’s no USDA-like certification here). I also have some gmo concerns about papaya, since the crop has gone gmo. If someone here were to import papaya seeds from Hawaii and plant them, they would grow—and well. Then there would be cross contamination of gmo papaya with the local papaya! What a mess!

  4. Finally! Someone who gets it! I worked at a greenhouse for a season back in high school so I got to learn a little bit about a lot of plants. People would come in asking for an “heirloom” variety of dwarf okra, for example. While we had a variety from the 40’s or so, we didn’t have an “heirloom” variety. They would also ask for organic “babies” that we began growing from seed in the greenhouse. Nothing we had grown ourselves was considered organic because of the different fertilizers we used. People often told me I didn’t know what I was talking about! I wish I had a print-out of this article to show them!

    • Thank you. I am a horticulturist (with a degree in horticulture) and have experience in the industry. These terms seemed to get confused with each other and sometimes, people weren’t entirely certain what those terms mean. This post was meant to provide some clarity.

      • I certainly appreciate it(: Do you buy your seeds locally or do you look online? The greenhouse I worked at serves some of my needs but I’m looking for perennials like asparagus that they just don’t have. I’m also interested in heirloom varieties so that I can save my own seed. Most of the seeds I save from their plants are sterile.

      • I do both, plus I also save some seed since all of the vegetables we raise are heirloom varieties. Some of my favorite sources for heirlooms are: Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., Seed Savers, Seeds of Change, and TomatoFest (online catalog) for heirloom tomato varieties. I hope this helps!

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