How to - Seeds

Sorting out seed terminology

Before you dig into your catalogues, understand the meaning behind some common terms

Growing plants from seed is exciting, but it may also prove confusing if you don't understand some of the basic terminology. To help, here are the meanings for some common jargon:

Genetically modified
(or genetically engineered)
Seed that is altered at the gene level to produce characteristics such as sterility or pest resistance.

Organic agriculture

A holistic way of growing food; plants are grown without using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers or genetically modified seed. Organic seed and food growers and processors are inspected annually. Certification used to be voluntary, however, in December 2008 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency began enforcing certification to the national standard. For more information on the Canadian Food Agency's organic regulations, visit and search "Organic Product Regulations."

Hybrid seed

Produced by parent plants that have been naturally or artificially cross-fertilized to create desired features in offspring. Seed from hybrid plants may in turn be sterile (if different species are crossed) or may revert to characteristics of their "grandparents."


Plants produced without the selective cross-fertilizing of hybrids. These varieties retain a more diverse, stronger genetic heritage. Those started from seed each year grow naturally true-to-type—as long as similar varieties are grown farther apart than pollen can blow in the wind or bees can fly!

Heirloom and heritage

These terms tend to be used interchangeably to refer to varieties that have been grown reliably for at least half a century; some can be traced back much farther. Although it's popular to think of heritage varieties as open-pollinated, some are in fact early hybrids. To learn more about heritage seeds, and seed conservation and exchanges, visit Seeds of Diversity.


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