Vegetable Seeds: Heirloom, Conventional, Organic, and Hybrid – Oh My!

vegetable seeds

vegetable seedsVegetable Seeds – Selection Information & Resources for the Home Gardener

Getting to know vegetable seeds production and seed type, first the big four:

Conventional and organic are descriptions of the environment in which the seed is produced; while hybrid and heirloom are descriptions of the type of seed produced. It is possible to have conventionally grown hybrids or heirlooms. Likewise it is possible to have organically grown hybrids or heirlooms.

Getting into the swing of vegetable seed selection for the new year’s garden has gotten a bit more challenging in the 21st century. There are so many more choices, and so many more complex issues and questions.

What seed company? What type of vegetable seed? What seeds are safe? What seeds are sustainable? Which vegetable seed companies can I trust? For anyone who does not have a lot of research background into the questions and issues surrounding vegetable seeds in 2013, things can become overwhelming pretty quickly.

It’s a tricky business making your way through the seed catalog and sales maze in an age when seeds are patented, genetically modified, hybridized and owned by massively large corporations on an international scale.  These days, seed just isn’t as simple as it used to be, or so it might seem. There are sources and places where it still is, however, and before we’re done here, we’ll sort it all out.

Organic or Conventional Vegetable Seeds – Why It Matters What You Choose

With over 77,000 new synthetic and man-made chemicals having been introduced to the environment in the last 70 years or so, there is a growing reason to be concerned about what is actually in our food.

Expert health research shows more and more clearly the impact of all of this chemical production as a major stress on the body’s immune system. Research indicates that the daily cleansing of what is called the ‘toxic load’ which builds up in all of us can take up as much as 50 percent of the working energy of our immune systems.  From exhaust fumes to household cleaners, synthetic materials to off-gassing of plastics and other household synthetics, our bodies are all working overtime just to keep up.  Organics offers a simple way to reduce the toxic load, at least in our food supply.

So, the first decision to help reduce the sheer volume of choices to consider is whether to select organically grown vegetable seeds or conventional vegetable seeds. When organic is your choice, you are one step closer to that old-fashioned simple way that seeds have been sown and grown for thousands of years.

Heirloom or Hybrid?

Another choice which can further simplify your catalog cruising is whether to go with hybrid or heirloom vegetable seeds, or a combination of both.  In this choice you decide if you want seeds which have been ‘bred’ through classical and modern plant genetics and selection practices. Hybrid seeds are bred to produce such things as better yields, or disease resistance.

There are a good number of organic seed producers creating excellent F1 hybrid seed which can help you get the best yield, flavor and nutrition from your vegetable crops. (F1 hybrid seeds are the first generation seeds resulting from a cross mating of distinctly different parental types.)  They are certainly worth looking into, particularly for crops you expect to grow a lot of, or which you know you will be depending upon for a good portion of your food source in the coming year.

We are particularly fond of some of the newer hybrid carrots, although we also love the heirloom Nantes variety, and we love the new super producing broccolis. Heirloom seeds have been grown traditionally, with seed harvested by individual farmers and gardeners for generations. These plants produce ‘true seed’ and are open pollinated; meaning they can and do self-pollinate in the garden.

Most people consider a true heirloom to be a variety that has been around since before the early 20th century and which is open pollinated, although some people say an heirloom must never have been sold commercially to be a true heirloom. You can decide that distinction for yourself, we are not so picky about it. After all, a lot of the heirlooms we love best were popular in vegetable seed catalogs in the late 19th century, and we would not want to exclude them.

Hybrid specialization means seeds will not reproduce ‘true’ seed from the crops you grow. But if you are not interested in seed collection, or, if, as in some cases, like with squash varieties in a home garden, seed collection is impractical and tricky at best, hybrids may be just what you want.

Heirloom vegetable seeds, representing the current generation of a diverse range of plants which have been grown for food for generations, help to retain bio-diversity in food crop seed. This may be an important role in the future health of food crops as it may offer protection against plant diseases which can spread rapidly through crops which are genetically similar in makeup.

For this reason we always pick out at least a few heirloom vegetables to try in the garden each year, as our contribution to supporting biodiversity in food crop seed. It’s also fun to harvest vegetable seeds and then grow your own crops from seed you grew yourself – and with some cool weather crops you can actually do this during just one growing season. We grew heirloom golden turnips this way last year and also now have a great supply of seed for this year’s crop and we just love them!

Vegetable Seed Companies – From Seed Producers to Seed Packet Companies

Generally speaking, vegetable seeds are sold by farms and vegetable seed producers who grow the crops and harvest the seed on site and companies which select seeds from seed producing farmers and then package and sell those seeds.  Many vegetable seed companies actually have some of both of these operations as a part of their business.  Smaller, ’boutique’ and specialty seed companies may grow only organic or heirloom seeds, and sell only what they produce. In recent years the number of the smaller specialized vegetable seed companies has risen dramatically, offering local gardeners the opportunity to purchase seeds that are grown and adapted to their local climate conditions.  Even some of the larger seed packet companies now offer locally specific varieties of seed for their customers in those regions.

In general, the home garden vegetable seed business has expanded dramatically over the last couple of decades. This increase is precisely what has led to the sometimes overwhelming increase in choices as a home gardener when it comes to seed selection. On the other hand, we generally consider more choice to be a good thing, and there is no reason that it cannot be just that, once you recognize the potential advantages of the wider selection that is available.

Many vegetable seed companies offer both hybrid and heirloom seeds, and many offer conventional and organic seeds.  There are seed companies which specialize, offering only organic seeds, which may be either hybrid or heirloom, and companies which offer only heirloom seeds. Finally, there are the organic heirloom-only seed companies which offer only organic heirloom seeds. Many of these highly specialized organic or heirloom or organic-heirloom-only seed companies are actually seed producers as well as marketers/retailers of garden seed.  This sets them apart from many of the larger companies which produce only a small portion (if any) of the seeds which they sell themselves, and instead have developed relationships with vegetable seed producers, often globally, from whom they purchase seeds to sell.

There really are all kinds of combinations, and many seed growers and seed sellers work with and are involved in annual seed trials where specific seeds are grown in test beds and in varying conditions to continue to advance the successful cultivation of these plants from seed.

The HGSA Home Garden Seed Association

The HGSA Home Garden Seed Association was formed in the U.S. in 2008. According to their website: “The Home Garden Seed Association (HGSA) is a member driven organization made up of garden seed packet companies, seed growers for the packet trade and allied vendors. Organized in 2008, our membership is committed to promoting gardening from seed. Our goals include: communicating with the gardening media to promote and educate about growing from seed, providing a web resource with seasonal information about growing from seed for home gardeners nationwide, and providing a forum for packet seed companies to discuss issues of mutual concern. The HGSA website serves as a central location for its membership as well as a resource about growing from seed.”

For those interested in heirloom seeds, there are also seed saver organizations which offer memberships and the opportunity to exchange seeds or acquire seed in exchange for donation and membeship in their organizations. Here are just a few of these organizations located in the US and Canada:

Seed Saver Organizations

For a complete comprhensive list, visit

Heirloom Seed Companies


Heirloom Seed Exchange Groups


Organic Vegetable Seed Companies

While many of the big vegetable seed companies, such as Burpee, Park-Davis, Ferry Morris and the like, offer organic seed, there is a large and growing variety of seed companies and certified organic seed variety available from smaller specialty seed companies, farms and independent growers.

Local seed grown in and adapted to your local conditions can provide additional benefit, being more sustainable (closer at hand) and developed and propagated in similar climate conditions to your own garden.  However, this does not mean there is anything wrong with choosing to purchase seed that is not locally produced. Most vegetables are grown all across the country, and indeed, the world. Just keep in mind that depending on your local conditions, a locally adapted seed may produce more abundantly and be easier to keep healthy.

For example, if you live in an area of high relative humidity, cucurbits (cucumbers, squash, melons, pumpkins etc.) may develop powdery mildew more readily than in drier climates. Choosing specimens for your garden that have been developed to be less susceptible to powdery mildew and successfully raised in your local climate just makes sense.

While many of these companies carry some selection of organic herb seed, our favorite choice for herb seed is the Thyme Garden Herb Company out of Alsea, Oregon.  We’re biased because they are close by, but also because they grow a huge variety of medicinal and exotic herb and offer a great catalog. Finally, their seed packets each include a very helpful little slip of paper inside with exacting instructions on growing the seed. Really helpful!  Last but not least, they also offer a wide variety of Hops rhizomes and organic mushroom plugs at very reasonable prices! So if you are feeling adventurous, they are a great place to start: Thyme Garden Herb Company.



Organic Seed Search by Seed Type

Organic Seed Finder, hosted and managed by the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA), was launched in October 2012, and serves as a free resource for farmers, certifiers, and other stakeholders looking to access reliable organic seed availability information. The database, found at, provides a central place for seed companies of all sizes to list their organic varieties.

We’ve covered just about all the best of the organic and heirloom vegetable seed companies here, but if you are interested in comparisons, you can take a look at Mother Earth News’ article on the Best Vegetable Seed Companies here:  MotherEarthNews Article – Best Vegetable Seed Companies.

Readers Comments (2)

  1. Wow, this must be the most comprehensive list of seed companies on the Internet! Thanks so much for compiling these lists, that’s really helpful.


  2. This is an impressive list. We offer them in the US and Canada as well.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.