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Catalogs decoded: What terms like ‘hybrid,' ‘heirloom' and '50 days' mean

Friday - 1/10/2014, 6:17pm  ET

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Various flower and plant seed packets are seen in the hand of Sharon Dausman as she shops at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show March 16, 2005 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - Starting this week, we'll begin our big seed catalog roundup! (Oops! Sorry. I just said a dirty word… make that ‘seed catalog review').

Anyway, before we list the players and their enticements to order, let's define the terms they use when describing seeds and plants:

Hybrids are not ‘frankenfoods'

Many people misunderstand the term hybrid when it appears on seeds or plants, mistakenly thinking it has something to do with GMOs or genetically modified organisms. But hybrids have been used in everyday agriculture for hundreds of years and are not the product of modern genetic engineering in a lab.

Rather, a hybrid is created when two different varieties of plants in the same genus (or what we would call "family") are combined in the field. This is achieved by dusting the pollen of one variety, say the legendarily delicious Brandywine tomato, onto the flowers of another variety of tomato that has different desirable traits, like better disease resistance or the tendency to produce more of those tasty fruits.

The two original parent plants will remain the same over the course of the growing season, but the seeds inside the fruits they produce will deliver the new, hybrid variety when they are collected, dried, packaged, sown and grown the following year. Pretty much exactly what happens when we humans have children, and often with equally unpredictable results.

Hybrids have been occurring naturally out in nature for thousands of years, with bees moving pollens around promiscuously from plant to plant. That's how humans learned to do it, and the most high-tech scientific equipment we use to create a new hybrid is a little paintbrush and a paper bag (to protect the flower from being randomly pollinated again).

Hybrids are always identified by the word "hybrid" or the symbol "F1" after the variety name on seed packets, plant tags and catalog descriptions. And they are completely garden kosher and are even allowed in certified organic agriculture.

Home gardeners can't even buy genetically modified seeds

Many listeners have written to me over the years, worried about whether a certain seed or plant they were interested in buying had been genetically modified. Finally a question with an easy answer: No.

Gene-jockeyed plants and seeds are not available to home gardeners, only to farmers who must sign a slew of legal documents before they can purchase seeds or plants whose DNA has been artificially altered. Genetically engineered plants and seeds are not allowed in certified organic agriculture.

Like we just said earlier, hybrid seeds and plants are not the result of laboratory tinkering and gene splicing. Hybrids have occurred naturally since plants began producing pollen; and are an accepted part of certified organic agriculture.

But the other side of this coin is the disturbing fact that over 90 percent of the corn and soybeans commercially produced in the United States are genetically-altered varieties, engineered to produce their own pesticides or to tolerate massive amounts of chemical herbicides. So if you've got the room and the inclination to grow the natural versions of those field crops, you may end up helping preserve important and valuable natural genetic traits.

An heirloom variety is more than just ‘old'

The word "heirloom" almost always calls for the addition of the adjective "treasured," but the actual definition of an heirloom variety is more slippery than a frog swimming in warm butter.

To most people, heirloom simply means an old variety; one that's been around for, say 100 years or close to it. That's mostly true. For those with some decades of dirt under their fingernails, it probably also indicates an open pollinated variety; that is a plant whose saved seeds will produce the exact same variety. That's also true.

But in the strictest sense, an heirloom is a variety that was once offered commercially in seed catalogs, fell out of favor, was discontinued, became technically unavailable, and survives today only because dedicated farmers and gardeners grew it and saved fresh seeds year after year until it became popular again. That makes them family heirlooms.

Why a ‘75-day' tomato might take you 115 days to grow

"Days to maturity" (often abbreviated as DTM) is one of the most important designations a catalog or plant tag can specify. But it can also be darned confusing, as its meaning varies with different types of plants.

With crops typically grown directly from seed (like corn, beans, lettuce, and spinach), days to maturity means the average number of days it takes from the time you plant the seed to the appearance of the first edible parts.

So a notation of "50 days" for a string bean means that you can expect to begin harvesting the first green beans about 50 days after the seed is planted — as long as the soil was warm enough for speedy germination and the weather stayed within reason. But that's just the beginning of the harvest, as a healthy bean plant will produce new pods all season if you pick them promptly.

Corn is similar, but also a little different. If you grow a sweet corn that's specified as "90 days," you really need to be around during the window of say, 80 to 100 days after planting the seed. Because if germination was fast and the weather favorable, your crop should be at its sweetest then.

Miss the harvest window and the sugars will convert to starch and you will have wasted a lot of time and space. So in this case, you need to know the DTM to pick correctly.

(Crops that are meant to be sown directly in the garden often carry the designation "direct sown.")

But for plants like tomatoes and peppers that are typically started indoors under lights and then planted outside when they have achieved a good size, a "75 day" rating means the first tomatoes should be ripe and ready, on average, 75 days after healthy six-week-old plants go into warm soil.

So if you're starting your own tomatoes from seed, your true days to maturity from the time you plant the seeds inside to having red stains on your shirt out in the garden would be around 115 or so days for that "75-day" tomato. (75 days plus six weeks plus seven to 10 days for the seed to germinate.)

Now, if you go to a garden center and buy an 80-day tomato that's already growing and good-sized, you should be picking in about 80 days. But if you're starting your own plants from seed, add two months to the DTM.

Seed catalog codes at a glance

Let's review our "How to read a seed catalog 101."

  • "Open pollinated" means you can save the seeds from your best fruits and use them to grow the exact same variety next season.
  • "Heirlooms" are open pollinated varieties that were once commercially available but discontinued and then saved from extinction by dedicated gardeners.
  • "Hybrid" or F1 varieties combine the best traits of two plants in the same family. You will not get the same variety if you save and replant seeds from the fruits of a hybrid plant.
  • Hybrids are not genetically modified organisms. And genetically altered seeds and plants are not available to home gardeners.
  • "Treated seeds" are coated with highly toxic chemicals and should be avoided, especially in households with children who might be attracted to their bright neon warning colors.

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