What are Open Pollinated and Heirloom Variety Vegetable Seeds?

comments (0) March 7th, 2012

Pin It

MikeTheGardener MikeTheGardener, member
thumbs up no recommendations

Over the past few years there has been a large movement towards growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs from seeds. The top three reasons people gave in a recent study conducted by the National Gardening Association, were to put fresh produce on the table, save some money and to know that what they were growing was safe.


Who can argue about all three reasons? Can there be anything in the store that is fresher than walking out of your back door, picking a tomato off the vine and then eating it right at that moment? I don’t believe so. As for saving money, the cost of a single vegetable seed is less than a hundredth of a penny. Yes that is one, one hundredth of a penny. Now of course you still need to water and tend to the plant, but in a recent USDA study, one tomato seed can produce over $50 worth of tomatoes. That’s a pretty good return.

When it comes to the safety of your vegetables, growing your own puts you in control of it. Unlike produce in stores, that are harvested in places you didn’t even know existed, you get control what goes into your soil and whether or not you want to treat your plants with a fertilizer. In other words, you make all of the decisions. That’s freedom to me.

This surge, and for these reasons, has lead to another push toward something. A variety of seeds that make vegetable gardeners feel safe when they plant them. They are open pollinated and heirloom varieties. Most of the time they can go hand in hand, but that is not always the case.

Open pollinated seeds are ones that have pollinated naturally. This type of pollination occurs when something helps pollinate the plants without “human” intervention. For example, the wind could be a source of pollination (this is also called Abiotic pollination), or some organism, such as a bee (Biotic pollination). The fruit of seeds that have been open pollinated will vary in size and shape. Unlike what you see in the store, all of your tomatoes won’t be the same bright red color or shape, but the ones from your garden will taste a heck of a lot better. A huge benefit of using seeds that are open pollinated is that you can save seeds from the fruit of the plants that you grow and get the same plant variety the following season (after you have dried out the seeds). That leads us to heirloom.

A great book to read on the subject is The Complete Idiot`s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables by author Chris McLaughlin. In there she talks about what an heirloom is, a little history on various heirloom varieties and importantly, a list of what types of heirloom seeds you can find today. As the name heirloom implies, it is simply a variety that has been passed down from one generation to the next. As you can see, open pollinated and heirloom can go hand in hand, however there are times when many gardeners hand pollinate their plants if it seems that natural open methods simply aren’t working. That doesn’t mean you can’t pass down the seeds from your heirlooms, it just means they weren’t open pollinated.

As a side note there are two terms that get thrown in this mix that many new vegetable gardeners misunderstand. Open pollinated heirloom variety does not equate to organic. For a seed to be organic it has to meet the criteria of the USDA’s National Organic Program guidelines. Furthermore, a hybrid vegetable does not mean that a plant has been genetically modified. A hybrid is a cross between two plants to produce an offspring that has characteristics of both the parent plants. However the seeds of a hybrid child (referred to as F1) will not necessarily produce the same exact plant from which it came.

I hope this clears up some of the terminology.

posted in: garden, vegetable, heirloom, pollinated, open