Seed Catalogs: What to Look For

Although January may not seem like a favorite month for Chicago gardeners, it is to those who are on the mailing lists for seed companies. January marks the arrival of new catalogs, with gorgeous photos and illustrations to transport all of us from the frozen earth to the gardens of our dreams. Although usually a pleasant planning session of circling favorite seeds to order, it’s easy to become overwhelmed when confronted with so many varieties and mysterious letters after the descriptions. While the decision of what to plant is highly personal, here are three tips to help you navigate the catalog codes and seed company ethics to make sure you get what you really want.

1. The Safe Seed Pledge, sponsored by the Council for Responsible Genetics.
Although most seed companies that market to home gardeners do not sell genetically engineered seeds, you can look for the Safe Seed Pledge in the catalog or on the website of any company you’re considering ordering seeds from. This voluntary pledge states that the company does not knowingly buy, sell, or trade genetically-engineered (GE) seeds or plants.

2. There’s still a lot of confusion between genetically-engineered (GE) seeds, hybrids, and f1 hybrids. The heirloom Brandywine tomato is a hybrid first developed in the late 1800’s. So is the more recently developed Sun Gold tomato. While neither have genetic material introduced from a non-tomato (as a GE seed would), seeds collected from Brandywine tomatoes will reliably produce Brandywines, while seeds collected from Sun Gold tomatoes will not produce Sun Gold tomatoes. Why? Sun Gold tomatoes are f1 hybrids developed with cross-pollination techniques between true-breeding parent tomato plants. Tomatoes with the Sun Gold characteristics only develop when seeds are produced from a cross between those two parent tomato plants, not from another Sun Gold tomato seed.

3. Ever notice tiny letters like VF or LB after a seed description? These are disease-resistance codes, and explanations will often be found in the center or front of your seed catalog. If you’ve ever lost a whole crop to verticillium wilt or mosaic virus, planting disease-resistant seeds will give you more reliability for your harvest, without having to resort to pesticides and fungicides for production. How do seeds acquire disease resistance if they aren’t genetically engineered? This happens through lots and lots of selective breeding to produce new hybrids, as well as testing and subjecting the seeds to diseases to evaluate their response.

Contributed by Breanne Heath


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