How to Read a Seed Catalog

Confused by seed-catalog terms? Here's your definitive glossary.

By Jean Nick


seed catalogs

The best part about this time of year is planning your garden with all the flowers, vegetables, herbs, or berries you want to harvest all summer long. But then you get to the seed-shopping phase, during which you encounter a wide array of strange terms that can make your gardening turn from a fun hobby into something resembling a science experiment. Hybrid? Open-pollinated? Cultivar? It can seem confusing to even the most seasoned gardener.

Never fear. Shopping for seeds is pretty easy once you understand what a few seed-speak terms mean.

Variety: A variety is simply a version or strain of a plant. Different varieties have different characteristics—for instance, better disease resistance or a flavor different from other varieties of the same species. You might be willing to buy a "tomato" in the supermarket, but if you are growing your own, you'd probably rather buy 'Brandywine', 'Sweet Million', or other varieties with better flavor that may not be able to travel the thousands of miles required of grocery-store tomatoes. You may also see the term cultivar (literally, "cultivated variety"), which is used pretty much interchangeably with variety in the seed world.

Organic: Seeds marketed as organic were grown on a certified-organic farm and have not been treated with pesticides or coated with chemicals to prevent rotting or premature sprouting. They've also never been genetically modified (GM) with things like bacteria or other plant DNA (more on GM seeds later). Buying organic seeds is worth it, because it protects the environment and people on seed farms from harmful pesticides. You're also supporting organic agriculture and breeders who are working to develop new varieties that do well in organic growing conditions.

If you can't find organic seeds in the variety you'd like to grow, however, go ahead and buy conventional seeds. The amount of synthetic chemicals riding along with a seed is very tiny, with one exception: seeds coated with fungicide to keep them from rotting before they sprout. Seed catalogs and seed packets usually note if seeds are treated, so you can usually avoid them. Also, the FDA requires seeds treated with poisonous chemicals to be dyed—those I've seen are usually shocking pink—to prevent confusion.

Pelleted: Some tiny seeds are available in "pelleted" form. This basically means that the seeds themselves are coated with some inert material (usually clay) that dissolves once you plant the seed. The idea is to make tiny seeds easier to plant and also allow you to distribute them in the soil in a more uniform way.

Hybrid: Regardless of what you may have read or heard, there is nothing inherently bad about hybrid varieties; some are wonderful plants and perfect for organic gardeners because of their disease resistance. A hybrid seed is the product of a farmer carefully making sure one specific plant variety cross-pollinates and fertilizes another specific variety. This is done because both varieties have desirable characteristics and, combined, those characteristics can create a much more desirable offspring variety.

Hybrid seeds are always labeled "hybrid" and/or "F1" (first-generation offspring) or "F2" (second-generation offspring). But what can get confusing for home gardeners is that you can't save seed from your hybrid varieties, plant it the following season, and expect to get the same results. Every seed produced by a hybrid variety will grow into something different. In order for hybrid varieties to retain the desirable characteristics of both parents, the parents have to be crossed each season.

When shopping, look for hybrid varieties that exhibit characteristics you want—for instance, great taste, tender skin, high nutrition, or the habit of ripening over a long period to spread out your harvest. Hybrid varieties that offer high productivity and good disease resistance, as well as great taste and tenderness, can be wonderful choices for your organic garden. Johnny's Selected Seeds, a major supplier of organic seeds for gardeners and small farmers, sells quite a few organic hybrid varieties.