Have you ever opened up a seed catalog and been confused by all the terms and choices?  What is the difference between Clemson Spineless Okra OG and regular Clemson Spineless Okra?  And how exactly is Clemson Spineless Okra different from Hill County Red Okra?  Let’s take a minute to slow down and clear up the confusion.  Here are five terms you need to understand when shopping for plants.

  1. Variety – variety describes the unique characteristics of the plant.  Clemson Spineless, a variety of okra, has spineless pods and was first introduced by Clemson University, hence the name!  Hill County Red, a different variety of okra, was developed in South Texas (or Texas Hill Country), and has pods streaked with red.  Varieties may differ in color, flavor, texture, size, growing requirements, and so forth.  It’s best to read the description of the variety and choose the one that best fits your preferences and growing conditions.
  2. Heirloom (a.k.a. open-pollinated) – heirloom is a term that is often only partially understood.  Many gardeners know that heirloom varieties are open-pollinated meaning that offspring express traits consistent to their parents so seed from open-pollinated varieties can typically be collected and replanted the following year.  What many gardeners do not know though is that heirloom varieties were created prior to 1951 because hybrid varieties really took off the latter half of the century.  Seeds of some heirloom varieties have been passed from one generation to the next for hundreds of years, others were created more recently – but prior to 1951 to be named an heirloom.  Stay tuned to future blog posts for pros and cons of growing heirloom varieties in the garden.
  3. Hybrid – hybrid is another term that is sometimes confused.  Sometimes gardeners think that hybrid is the same as genetically modified (GM).  This is not the case.  Hybrid refers to offspring produced by crossing parents with desirable traits.  Hybrid vigor is often used to describe an increased capacity of hybrids to do something – like increased productivity, increased tolerance of cold temperatures, increased pest resistance, and so forth.  Hybridization can happen in nature or in a laboratory.  It is widely believed that the Native Americans (Olmec and Mayans) worked as early plant breeders when they selected for superior traits among corn plants.  First generation offspring of hybrids often do not express traits consistent with their parents so gardeners who collect and replant seed are taking a risk – the traits of the offspring may be great, or they may be mediocre.  To save time, heartache, and disappointment, most gardeners take the easy approach and purchase new seed each year.  Hybrid plants can be organic or can be conventional depending on how they are grown – we will discuss this next.
  4. Organic – of all the terms discussed in this blog post, organic is probably the most misused.  When it comes to selling seed, plant starts, or produce, the term ‘organic’ is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  USDA Certified Organic refers to agricultural products that meet the regulations of the National Organic Program (NOP).  In the case of hybrids, the NOP regulates that hybrid plant starts must come from USDA Certified Organic seed to be sold as organic starts (young plants).   It is difficult to find organic plant starts in most garden centers so gardeners who only want to grow organically raised plants probably want to start their own plants at home from seed.  If this describes you, look for the USDA Certified Organic label when selecting seed or choose varieties follow by (OG) like Clemson Spineless (OG).
  5. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – are products that are created when genes of one organism are added to another using biotechnological methods.  By inserting new genes into plants, researchers can improve certain characteristics such as pest resistance, or improved tolerance of environmental stresses.  For example, GMO papaya helped Hawaiian farmers grow fruit unaffected by the Papaya Ringspot Virus.  The use of GMOs in conventional agriculture is a hotly debated issue and as a result some people choose steer clear of GMO technology.  If this describes you, a simple way to select for produce is to look for the USDA Certified Organic label because GMOs are not permitted in certified organic agriculture.