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?
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 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.