It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the variety of seeds available for growing, whether you stop in our store to look at our huge selection or whether you’re doing some seed sleuthing on Google. If you’ve never grown plants from seed before, you’ll have terms thrown at you constantly that you’ll have to wrap your head around before you even get to a point where you feel informed enough to make sound choices. For a beginner, this can get intimidating or downright discouraging quickly. To overcome this, we have prepared a simple seed guide. 

Here, we have attempted to clarify some of the advantages and disadvantages of several common seed types, and in doing so have outlined some of the most basic choices you’ll have to make as you decide what to grow. We’ve also tried to keep it short and sweet, as this topic can quickly get rather complex. We’ve also made a few generalizations to keep our explanations simple and clear, and we’ve chosen to focus on veggie seeds specifically.

Open Pollinated: Your Own Backyard Varieties

Many seeds you come across may be labelled as ‘open-pollinating’. Open-pollinating plants usually produce seeds that you can gather and use in the future. When you collect and replant these seeds, there is a high chance that the seed will produce a plant that is very similar or exactly the same as the parent.

A major (and fascinating) advantage to open-pollinated plants is that year-by-year the plant may become incrementally better-suited to the growing conditions you’ve provided it with in your yard. If you diligently replant some of the seeds from your initial plant each you, you may eventually have a slightly different variety of tomato from what you started with that is tailored to your own garden!

This advantage of course comes with its own drawback – many open-pollinating plants will readily cross-pollinate with other compatible plants in your bed. Without isolating your initial variety, you might experience significant variance in your crop year-to-year as the original plant’s pollen intermingles with that of other plants. In addition, if you isolate the plant from the corrupting influence of other plants, you may be forced to do the pollinating yourself.

This disadvantage does not apply to plants that are labelled as self-fertile. Self-fertile plants take care of themselves and do not as easily ‘mingle’ with other plants.

The “Heirloom” Factor: Higher-Risk, Higher Reward

Though it is still a contentious issue among growers, it is generally agreed upon that heirloom/heritage varieties of plants are those that have been in existence for 50 or more years. The sheer number of heirloom/heritage varieties available on the market is staggering. Many gardeners will go to great lengths to secure their favourites because these varieties have rich backstories coupled with incredible flavours unrivaled by any of the more modern hybrids.

Image of simple seed guide

Whether or not a robust selection of heirloom-type seeds will be suitable for your garden depends on what your goal is come harvest time. If you eat most of your fruits and veggies fresh, then heirloom varieties are an excellent choice. However, it is important to note that heirloom maturity times and yield quality can be rather inconsistent. If you intend to take the crop and turn it into preserves or otherwise prepare them for non-fresh-eating uses, you will be greatly frustrated by the varying quantity, quality, size, and harvest time of your heirloom crops.

A final note concerning heirloom varieties: they can be prone to disease issues. Modern hybrids have often been bred specifically to resist many common diseases, but heirloom varieties are the opposite – they have been preserved for generations with minimal alterations – and so they sometimes can’t stand up to these diseases without our help. Maintaining good watering, crop rotation, and general disease prevention practices will be crucial to your success.

Hybrid Varieties: Safer Plant, Safer Taste

For the record, hybrid plants are not necessarily the same as genetically-engineered plants. The act of hybridization has been carried out for thousands of years in the form of selective breeding (long before we even had a term for it), and we’re better for it. Hybrids are the child of two different parent plants that are intentionally cross-pollinated to harness the unique advantages of each – completely different from GMOs, which we (somewhat accurately) picture as plants that are tweaked in petri dishes by lab technicians.

Hybrid seeds tend to be more expensive because the process of creating new hybrids is often painstakingly difficult. In addition, hybrid seeds need to be re-purchased on a yearly basis because the seeds produced by your parent plant will not reliably produce the same plant in turn.

These disadvantages are more than made up for by all sorts of combinations of superior disease resistance, heat and cold tolerance, adaptability, heavier yields, uniform production and generally better consistency.

These consistencies are sometimes at the expense of flavour. Hybrids frequently purported to be less flavourful than heirloom or open-pollinated varieties. If your intention is to can or pickle, however, the somewhat subjective loss of flavour in favour of superior harvests is definitely worth it.

Fail Fast, Fail Often

Gardening requires quite a few skill sets that we must work to develop over time. Arguably the most important one is patience. If you’re new to growing from seed, there’s no getting around it: you’re probably going to inadvertently kill some plants. You’re likely going to have a few seeds that do not germinate. It’s important to recognize that this is OK! With some dedication, a bit of patience, and some luck, you will be successful.

Above all else, remember that we can be a great resource for you — we’re just a phone call or quick e-mail away!