You want to grow some veggies, you know you need to grow them from seed, but what type of seed should you buy? What is GMO? What is F1? What is heirloom? You want to grow some fruit trees, but why are some nurseries saying you need to buy multiple trees for fruit set and others are saying you only need one? And why do so many people say you can't grow fruits and veggies from the seeds you saved from the produce you bought at the grocery store?


First of all, let's get some basic core information about seeds out of the way first.

What is a seed?

Not all plants can be grown from seed. Some plants have different methods of reproduction such as ferns that have spores rather than seeds, and some reproduce asexually through roots, tubers, leaves, or stems taking root, replicating an exact copy of the parent plant, such as Cavendish bananas. Plants that do produce seeds are divided into two types: Angiosperms and Gymnosperms.

Gymnosperms produce seeds in cones. Conifers, such as pine trees, are an example of gymnosperm plants. Angiosperms are much more common and varied. These are the plants that produce seeds by flowering. All flowering plants are angiosperms, including fruits and vegetables. For the purpose of this article, I'll be talking about the seeds produced by angiosperms.

Angiosperms reproduce via pollination which can happen in a few different ways. Some plants are self-pollinating, some aren't, some have both male and female organs within a single flower, some divide into male and female plants that need to grow near each other in order to create seeds. I'll get more into the different types and methods of pollination later, for the moment I'll bring it down to the most simple thing: angiosperms breed the same way we do, that is, male genetic material (from a flower's stamen) and female genetic material (from a flower's pistil) needs to combine in one way or another to create a baby.

Yes, a baby. In the simplest of terms, a seed is an unborn baby plant. It's a little plant embryo, wrapped up in a protective womb called a seed coat, that also contains a wad of food for the baby plant in the form of starches.

The seed coat has tiny little pores that allow the transfer of water and air. A seed will sit dormant and do nothing until it's exposed to water. When the seed absorbs water, so long as it also has access to oxygen, the little plant embryo will start to grow. As it grows it feeds off the starches inside the seed coating until it's big enough to send out roots and leaves and push itself out of it's seed casing. This process could be likened to a baby plant being born.

Open vs Closed pollination.

Many flowers have both male and female reproductive organs in the same flower. Some of these plants won't have mature enough reproductive organs for fertilisation until after the flower has fully opened, and some of them grow in such a way that the male stamen will mature and release its pollen before the female pistil is mature enough to receive the pollen or vice versa. These plants require open pollination, that is, the pollen from the male stamen of another flower of the same type of plant is usually required to fertilise the female pistil in order to produce seeds.

Sometimes a flowering tree that has stamens and pistils that mature at different rates in it's flowers can still fertilise itself by having flowers growing on it that are at different stages of maturity, but having more than one tree will greatly increase the chances of fertilisation, and thus grow more fruit. This is why information from nurseries about how many fruit trees you need can be a bit confusing. Some fruit trees will produce a small amount of fruit on their own but will produce a lot more fruit if they have a partner. Some will require another variety of the same type of tree (eg: two different types of apples that flower around the same time) because the flowers will only accept, or can only be fertilised by, pollen from a different variety.

On the flip side, some plants that have both male and female organs in the same flower are able to mature before the flower is fully open and thus the flower can fertilise itself and start forming a seed before it opens and becomes exposed to the pollen from other flowers. This is called closed pollination, and will always result in the seeds growing the same type plant that will produce the same type of fruit and seeds as the parent plant.

Open pollinating flowers are much more likely to end up developing seeds that are cross-breeds, resulting in the next generation of plants being different to the parent plant. Closed pollinating plants will create seeds that will grow new plants that are exactly the same as the parent plant.

And then there's the male plants and female plants where you need one of each for fruit set. This is where one plant is male and only produces flowers that have stamens, and the other plant is female and has only produces flowers that have pistils. The female plant needs a nearby male plant for fertilisation in order for the female plant to grow fruit.

How pollination happens.

Some plants rely on the wind to blow pollen to where it needs to go. Some have the male stamens located above the female pistils and use gravity to get the pollen where it needs to go. Most plants use insects. Butterflies, bees, flies and other flying insects that feed on the nectar of the flowers get pollen stuck on them when they come into contact with the stamen as they dive at the nectar, and then when the insect comes in contact with a female piston on a flower of the same type, some of the pollen rubs off where it needs to be.

There's a lot more to it all than that.

So that's the basics of what a seed is and how it comes into existence and turns into a plant, and that hopefully answered some of the questions you might be asking. Now before we get into the interesting stuff about all the different types of seeds that you came here to read about, you're going to need a very simplified crash course in genetics, otherwise you won't understand what on earth I'm talking about when it comes to giving you the rest of the answers you're looking for.

What does genetics have to do with it?

Everything that isn't energy is made up of building blocks called elements. Elements combine to form molecules. Every living thing is made of complex little molecules called nucleotides. Combine nucleotides together and you get a very complex little molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid, more commonly known as DNA. DNA exists as a tightly wound up little bundle called a chromosome which exists inside the nucleus of a cell. Each cell has many chromosomes within it. When male and female reproductive cells combine to make a baby, the chromosomes from both parents create the baby, resulting in half of the baby's DNA coming from the father, and the other half coming from the mother. DNA is long and complex and it tends to form in sequences, or little clusters that sort of form patterns for lack of a better description. Each DNA sequence contains instructions on how to combine and create proteins that are called genes. Now that's some pretty complex terminology for an extremely complex topic, and I certainly don't expect anyone reading this to remember all that least of all understand it. So long as you have the gist that we're all made of tiny little things that make other tiny little things that combine together to make new tiny little things, you now have a vague idea what we're made of and how we come to be so similar and yet so different from our parents. Plants are no different in this regards because as I said, all living things are made of the same stuff, it's all just put together in different patterns.

The fun part is that the genes a baby gets from each parent can be a bit unpredictable. Some genes are “dominant” and some are “recessive”, which is why a brown eyed mother and a green eyed father can make babies with either green or brown eyes, but they'll be most likely brown because brown is a dominant gene and green is recessive to brown. But each parent's genes that they pass on are also made of a combination of genes they got from their parents, and just because mum has brown eyes and dad has green eyes doesn't mean they can't have a child with blue eyes. In this scenario, a blue eyed child can appear if both the parent's recessive genes are for blue eyes, as now and then the recessive genes from both parents will pair up. It's less likely to happen, but the point is, it can happen.

Thus is the nature of genes and the unpredictability of how they pair up to make a new baby, be it a baby human, plant, animal, or bacteria, these beautifully complex and varied genes can sometimes match up in some rather strange ways. If that was weird enough, every now and then something even more strange will happen and a gene will mutate into something completely new and different. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The egg came first, because the first ever chicken came from an egg, but it's parent wasn't a chicken. Something different happened when those genes were pairing up to make the egg that the chicken hatched from. In the same ways strange things can sometimes happen when making a seed from which a plant grows, or an embryo from which a human grows. When mutations happen, if it benefits the living thing to have that mutation, it will survive and pass it onto to the next generation. If the mutation is detrimental, the living thing may not live long enough pass it on, or it simply may not pass on at all as better genes take back over and push the mutation into recession. This is how evolution works.

To add to this complexity, sometimes the genes that determine one trait can also be linked to and determine another. For example, the gene for a specific type of colourblindness (there's different types) is linked to a gene that contributes to making people male, which is why men are colourblind more often than women, as women can't have that specific type of colourblindness. But of course, not all men are colourblind because not all of them have that gene combination, and some women are colourblind because they can have different types of colourblindness. If you were to take that colourblind gene away, you could potentially mess up the ability of that new little cell to turn into a baby boy and you might end up with a girl instead, or have a boy with some very feminine traits, or maybe a boy with some bits missing... it all depends on exactly how each gene is programmed and what it's meant to create, and I'm not a geneticist studying this exact topic so I haven't got a clue what would actually happen if that colourblind gene was simply removed, but suffice to say, something other than having a baby that wasn't colourblind would most likely occur and it would most likely affect that child's gender in some way.

Humans have studied genetics for many long centuries, although not in a laboratory for most of it, the study of genetics is what has allowed humans to cross breed plants and animals to create new plants and animals with more desirable traits. An ancient wild mustard was selectively bred in a multitude of ways by many different people, with each resulting generation selected and bred to improve the desired traits. As a result of this selective breeding over thousands of generations of these plants, we now have broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussles sprouts, and cabbage, and each of them have different varieties available with each different variety selected and bred for preferred traits such as appearance, taste, disease resistance, long shelf life, rapid growth, large growth, and a zillion other qualities.

As great as we humans are at creating different varieties of plants with desirable traits in this way, there's a few downsides to selective breeding. For a start, it can be a bit hit and miss. You could cross pollinate an orange with a lemon, but you're not going to know what the results are until the fruit has grown, you've collected the seeds, grown the seeds into mature trees, and the new trees bare fruit. Only then will you know what new fruit results from your cross pollination. You could cross pollinate from the same plants to collect dozens of seeds and get dozens of different results. If you're looking for one specific result, it can take a very long time to achieve it, if indeed you ever do. And even when you do achieve it, there's no guarantee you'll be able to repeat the process and get another tree the same – which is why so many fruit trees are grown from graft rather than seed. For many fruits, grafting is the only way to guarantee that you'll get the same sort of fruit on the new tree.

Along the road of cross pollination experimenting, you'll get a lot of results that can be quite terrible and end up with a lot of traits that you were hoping to get rid of. No matter what, the results will always be a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of rejected plants, and a lot of frustration until luck finally gives you a break. Most selectively bred plant varieties that have come into existence are a result of someone's life-long dedicated work, or a happy accident, or more commonly, both. This is because with selective breeding, we're not fully in control of it. We can choose which plants we want to breed together, but we can't control how the genes of those plants are going to pair up with each other.

Yes, genetics is complicated, and it won't always give you what you want, and it can be very hard to predict. If you think this explanation was complicated, it's just a single snowflake of information sitting on the tip of the giant iceberg that is genetic science.

So, now that you have some idea how seeds form, and have a very vague idea how genetics sort of works and how complicated it can be, let's get to answering more of those questions.

GMO seeds.

I don't think there is any GMO seeds on the market that you can buy without jumping through a ton of corporate and governmental hoops and paying a lot of money, but just in case you come across some and want to know what the real deal is with them, here it is.

Instead of going through the massive amount of trial and error over a long period of time to create a variety of plant with desirable traits though selective breeding, geneticists that know what they're looking at, that know what the different genes in the plant's DNA do, can manipulate the exact genes they're wanting to remove and/or add, or turn genes off and on (make recessive ones dominant or vice versa), to get the exact results they're looking for very quickly. They can also take genes from related plants that wouldn't normally be able to be cross-pollinated and incorporate them into a gene profile of another plant to create a seed that's a cross-breed of something that wouldn't normally be possible.

For example, corn and rice are related, they're in the same family because they have the same distant ancestor. But you can't cross pollinate corn with rice because they've been bred to go in different evolutionary directions. Corn produces vitamin A, a great nutrient that is very important for our health. Rice is a great staple that feeds half the human population of the planet. Now, take the DNA sequence from corn that tells the plant to create vitamin A and put it into the DNA sequence of rice, and you get golden rice – a rice that is yellow and produces vitamin A. That's an extreme oversimplification of the process, but it's the best description I can give without diving down a science rabbit hole. It's otherwise a perfectly normal plant producing a perfectly healthy food. It's not going to make anyone sick, it's not going to cause cancer, it's not going to destroy the world, in fact it could make a lot of people in very impoverished nations a lot more healthy and potentially save a lot of lives. However, there are a few problems with it.

The problems with GMO plants, foods and seeds has nothing to do with the science, or the plants, or the seeds. The problem is that it's expensive – scientists have to be paid for their work, expensive equipment is required to do it, and it does still take many years because the DNA has to be researched, tests need to be done, and even once a seed has been developed, it still has to be grown and tested to make certain that the results are indeed the positive ones that were hoped for, and then all of it has to be peer reviewed... it's a long and laborious process, but it's still lot quicker and more accurate than selective breeding. Because it's expensive, most such research is done by private corporations, and they want to recoup their money and then make a profit. They do this by patenting the seeds. That creates a monopoly and a legal mess, because plants still go about pollinating, cross-pollinating, dropping seeds, and growing wherever they can whether we want them to or not. We can't control everything, but some of these companies would certainly like to try.

Some people will argue that GMO is bad because it stops seed harvesting and forces farmers to have to buy all new seeds every season... but that's a mute point because F1 seeds aren't GMO and create exactly the same problem, but we'll get to that next.

Anyway, don't be afraid of GMO seeds, they won't hurt anyone, the plants that grow from them won't hurt anyone, they won't take over and destroy the world, but you might want to read the fine print so you can avoid any potential legal problems that might arise from growing those seeds or using the plants that grow from them, especially if your growing activities might make you a little bit of money.

F1 and other F- seeds.

Thanks to so many people selective breeding plants for so many centuries, and with science now helping, some things that are selectively grown do have much more predictable and accurate genetic results. It may be known and guaranteed that if you cross carrot variety A with carrot variety B, you're going to get carrot C every time. Carrot variety C is grown from what is called an F1 seed. These seeds aren't GMO, they're selectively bred the old fashioned way, they've just been selectively bred so often and with such accuracy that they can be sold and guaranteed to give a specific result.

However, if you grow and pollinate carrot variety C with another carrot variety C, you won't be able to get another carrot variety C, because the genetics won't carry on in the same pattern. Instead they'll get all unpredictable and will revert back to A and/or B and/or produce some other random combination giving you new carrot varieties D and E, which might not be as pleasant as carrot variety C. If you want more carrot variety C seeds, you'll have to go back to breeding carrot variety A with carrot variety B again.

F1 seeds are selectively produced to create plants that will have specific benefits. For example it might be that a variety of tomato is highly disease resistant but grows tasteless fruit, and another variety has great tasting fruit but is susceptible to disease. When they're cross-pollinated, the resulting seeds will always grow a tomato that is disease resistant and has a lovely flavoured tomato. F1 seeds are also the way in which things like seedless watermelons are produced. After all, you can't exactly grow a seedless watermelon from the non-existent seeds of a seedless watermelon.

There are some other F- seeds out there. Now and then it's discovered that crossing a F1 seed with something else specific will always give you another predictable result. Say for example going back to our carrot varieties, carrot variety C is crossed with carrot variety F, it will always give you carrot type G every time. When this happens, the new seeds are called F2. If F2 seeds are able to be crossed with something for a reliable result, the new seeds from that are called F3, etc. These other F- seeds have the same problem as F1 seeds, in that you can't grow another crop the same by harvesting the seeds from the plants that are grown from them.

Generally speaking, F1 (and other F-) seeds produce plants that are in some way superior, but it comes at a cost. Because you can't harvest the next generation of seeds from the plants grown from F1 seeds and get the same result, you have to keep buying new seeds if you want to grow the same crop again next season.

This is the reason why many fruits “can't” be grown from the seeds saved from fruit bought from the supermarket. You certainly can grow them, but the resulting fruits will probably be quite different – and usually much worse – than the fruit you got them from, as most varieties found on supermarket shelves are F1 varieties, grown for their superior appearance, disease resistance, long shelf life, or whatever other preferred trait the market is demanding.

True-to-type seeds.

When a plant produces seeds that can be harvested and then grown to produce exactly the same sort of plant, it's called True-to-type. That is, every generation will always grow to be the same as the previous one. These are the sort of seeds that you can grow, harvest, and plant the next generation and know exactly what you're going to get because they're going to be exactly the same as their mother plant.

Some true-to-type seeds are this way because their genetics won't allow for variation. Much like trying to breed a cat with a dog, fertilisation simply won't happen. The plants will only accept the genetic material from the exact same type of plant, resulting in the seeds always growing the same type of plant.

The other common reason for true-to-type seeds comes from closed pollinating flowers which I've already explained.

Heirloom seeds.

This is the most headache inducing seed description that exists, because there's no set standard definition of what makes a plant or seed “heirloom” other than a loose definition of “it's a variety of plant that has been around for a long time”.

Some countries have set a regulated and clear definition of what qualifies as a heirloom variety plant or seed, but definitions can vary by country. In countries where there has been no regulated clear definition set, it can vary by region, by company or nursery, or be simply used as a colloquial term for a plant with an old and traceable heritage. Ultimately, what defines an heirloom plant or seed depends on who you're talking to.

It could mean a seed from a variety of plant that has existed for a long time because its seeds will always grow true-to-type. It could also mean a variety of plant that has been around for a long time, but it only still exists as such because of other plant propagation methods such as grafting – the seeds may not grow true-to-type at all.

Most heirloom plants will grow true-to-type seeds so long as they're either closed pollinating, can't accept or be fertilised by other varieties, or because there's no other plants of different varieties in flower at the same time. For example, if the only citrus trees that are in flower for hundreds of miles in every direction are navel oranges, then chances are the seeds from your navel orange tree will only be able to produce more navel oranges. But if there's a lemon tree in the area that happens to be in flower at the same time the navel orange trees are flowering, there's a chance that a bit of cross pollination could occur and you could end up growing a plant from a seed from your navel orange tree that will produce a cross between a lemon and an orange, even if both the lemon and orange trees are classed as heirloom plants.

Generally however, most heirloom seeds will grow true-to-type and can be collected generation after generation, but keep in mind that growing two different varieties close together that flower at the same time could potentially mess things up a bit for you.

Organic seeds.

Less of a headache than heirloom seeds, the term “organic” is still a bit of a headache in that it's shrouded with misinformation and propaganda, and the regulations as to what qualifies as organic varies from place to place, from one certifying authority to another, and can be pretty lax in most places. Scientifically speaking, all seeds are organic because all living things are organic, but that's not what we're talking about here.

Organic in the food and plant growing industry refers to things that have been grown using all “natural” methods, that is without the use of “chemicals”. Commercial simply means selling something for profit as a business, therefore organic growers can also be commercial. For the sake of this article to save confusion I will be using the term commercial to refer to “non-organic” growers.

The problem of what is and isn't organic, what is or isn't natural, and what of it all is perceived by the majority of the population as good and bad, comes from advertising propaganda over the past century abusing people's fears and misunderstandings in order to make products seem more appealing. Like all things, if you want to know where an idea originated, follow the money.

The cold hard fact is that natural doesn't necessarily mean safe, and chemicals aren't inherently bad: batrachotoxin is organic and completely natural and one of the most toxic things on the planet – it's a poison produced by some beetles and frogs; and the inorganic chemical compound dihydrogen monoxide is healthy and good for us and is more commonly known as water. Keep this in mind when looking at “organic” and “natural” anything. Just because something says “all natural” on the label doesn't automatically make it better or safe, and just because something has a scary sounding chemical name doesn't automatically mean it's in any way harmful.

Now, back to organic growing... organic growers can, and many do, spray their plants with a concoction made from daisy flowers to get rid of bad insect pests when they get overwhelming. Sounds all natural and good right? The main ingredient in most commercial insecticides is pyrethrum, which comes from the pyrethrum plant, also known as the daisy plant. Same chemical, same use, same effect, same original source. So what's the difference? In reality, there is none other than the label. There are heaps of foods and plants being grown, and heaps of mulches, fertilisers, and other gardening products out there that are what you would consider to be organic that simply aren't certified because no one has paid anyone to certify them as such. There's also plenty of certified organic growers that you wouldn't consider organic if you knew all the details of everything they use and how they do things.

There are both organic and commercial farmers and growers out there that are using perfectly safe and environmentally friendly methods of growing their plants, and there are both commercial and organic farmers and growers that aren't. When it comes to buying seeds to grow, it makes absolutely no difference at all how the mother plant was grown, what insecticides or fungal sprays were used on it, or what fertiliser it was fed, that little seed will be exactly the same either way. The only questions you need to ask yourself with buying seeds is what sort of business do you want to support by buying your seeds from them? And how will you raise your new little baby plant?

Seed viability.


Seeds kept in the right conditions – cool, dry, and dark – will last for a very long time. Some will last for several years, some will last for decades, but you may have noticed on seed packets that they have an expiry, best before, or sow before date and that date is rarely any longer than next season, or the one after if you're lucky. If your seeds are past that date, don't throw them out, plant them and see if they grow. Chances are, most of them will still grow.

The expiry/best/sow before dates are there to give you an indication of when the vast majority of the seeds will be the most viable. Companies do this because they want to keep a good reputation by selling packets whereby more than 90% of the seeds in the packet will grow, and of course to sell more seeds when people think their stored seeds have expired and they need to buy more. They don't want to be selling a packet of 1000 seeds to have only half of them grow, as that wouldn't look good for them.

The reality is, most seeds will still sprout and grow long after their expiry date, it's just that the % of the seeds in the packet that will grow reduces over time. Even if your seed packet is 10 years past it's expiry, there's a chance that if you plant them all out, a couple of them might still grow. You'll never know unless you give it a go, so plant them and see if they sprout before you throw any old seeds away.


Grow whatever you want to grow. Don't let anyone pressure you into only ever growing heirlooms, or thinking that F1 seeds are the only way to go, or try to kid you into believing the GMO seeds are somehow going to produce food that is dangerous to your health. No matter where they come from, seeds are innocent little baby plants that want to grow up and reproduce and make little babies of their own. It's not their fault humans have used forced breeding practises for centuries to create different varieties of plants in different ways and label them all, to then go around creating fear campaigns and misinformation just so they can sell more of the type of plants, foods, and seeds that they happen to be producing.

If you love yellow seedless watermelon, then buy F1 seeds. If you love an old heirloom variety of tomato, buy the seeds for that. If a company has moral and ethical practises that are in line with your own, support them and buy their seeds. If you're into growing rice and you want to grow golden rice... well, I can't help you there, but I'm sure that with enough money, political and corporate influence you'll eventually be able to convince whomever is holding the purse strings on that project to untie them a little bit for you so you can get hold of and grow some in your area without getting sued, fined or gaoled for it.

The most important thing is that you do what is right for you, and that you grow what you want to grow (local climate, season, availability and bio-security laws permitting).