As you sit down with the seed catalogs, you might be wondering what the fuss is about with heirloom seeds vs. hybrids. Or old-time tomatoes like “Brandywine” compared with newer ones like “Flavr Savr.” Seeds passed down from your grandfather vs. genetically modified seeds supplied by Monsanto.

Part of the concern among gardeners, small farmers and foodies is that seeds are losing their diversity. And when that happens, a single problem like potato blight can wipe out an entire food supply.

And then there are GMOs, genetically modified organisms that have had their DNA tweaked to introduce a gene that wasn’t previously there. These engineered seeds may resist certain pathogens. And most famously, GMOs resist herbicides like glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup), which allows farmers to spray their crops with chemicals that kill weeds without harming the crops — a big money and time-saving bonus.

But Monsanto holds patents on their seeds — meaning farmers are not allowed to save seed from the previous year’s crop, to plant again in the new season. Any farmer caught saving Monsanto’s seeds will be sued. Monsanto says why on its website: It spends $2.6 million per day developing seed and wants to get paid for its efforts. Approximately 275,000 farmers in the United States use Monsanto’s genetically modified and/or patented seeds, according to the company.

But the company also has its hands in back-yard gardening. Want to know if your favorite tomato and great-tasting cabbage is a Monsanto product? Check out the seed branch where the company supplies seed to big-name catalogs on the website

“Patented is just a nice way of saying they own our food,” said Gary Ibsen, an heirloom advocate and owner of TomatoFest Seeds in Carmel, Calif.

To assure that our food supply is genetically diverse and patent-free, folks like Ibsen and the Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, Iowa, make it their mission to preserve culturally diverse food crops for future generations. If you have an heirloom melon, for example, passed down in your family, Seed Savers Exchange would like to know about it and help save that plant for the future.

Seed banks are springing up all over the world. Petaluma Seed Bank in Sonoma County, Calif., stores and supplies more than 1,500 heirloom vegetable garden seeds. Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in London, networking with 80 countries around the world, has banked 11 percent of the world’s wild plants. The Chicago Botanic Garden maintains a tall-grass prairie seed bank.

Seed banks are different from seed libraries, from which you borrow the seed, grow the plant and then return saved seed to the library. The San Francisco Seed Library encourages all communities to start their own library of heirlooms that do well their regions. The library will even help communities get started.

Catalog-wise, it’s companies like Baker Creek that obtain and sell up to 1,600 kinds of heirloom seeds. Many of their seeds are open-pollinated — meaning birds and bees pollinate these plants, creating even more biodiversity in the offspring.

Hybrids, on the other hand, are purposeful. That means a person has cross-pollinated a plant in a controlled environment. Ordinary people have been creating hybrids for hundreds of years and there is nothing wrong with a hybrid plant, per se, although some hybrids are patented, too. But some hybrids could be heirlooms.

If you grow heirlooms, you are welcome to keep as much seed as you like. Nobody owns these plants and there is freedom in that. If you feel like saving hundreds of heirloom seeds for your family, say, in the event the food supply is threatened, or you just love the taste of an old-school cucumber, save away.

But let’s not forget taste. Flavor may be the single most popular reason back-yard gardeners choose heirloom over hybrids. A hybrid may be designed to stand up in a shipping crate, or ripen weeks after it is picked, but heirlooms, with all their flaws and funky shapes, have the rich flavors we remember when we all grew our own.



More information

Companies that are committed to heirloom and open-pollinated seed:

Seed Savers Exchange,

Baker Creek,

The Kusa Seed Society (wheat, barley and other commodities),

Territorial Seed,


D. Landreth Seeds,

Bountiful Gardens,


Safe seed initiative

The Safe Seed Initiative is an effort by the Council for Responsible Genetics, which asks seed suppliers to pledge they will not buy, sell or distribute seeds that have been genetically modified. A list of suppliers that have taken the pledge is at