Open Pollinated, Hybrid, Heirloom, GMO, Organic. We can’t tell you how often we get asked to clarify these terms. We understand! There’s a lot of information out there that can be confusing. So we’re making it easy. Find short, simple definitions clearly listed below.

  1. Open Pollinated
  2. Hybrid
  3. Heirloom
  4. GMO
  5. Organic

Already know these terms like the back of your hand? Learn one more here: Curing!

1. Open Pollinated

Open Pollinated refers to plants that are pollinated naturally (for example by birds, wind, human hands, and pollinating insects). Seeds collected from Open Pollinated plants will produce plants that are “true to type” (meaning they should be a genetic match with the parent plant).

However, Open Pollinated plants can be naturally cross-pollinated as well, exactly like two parents producing a unique child together. Plants grown from the seeds of cross-pollinated plants will be a cross between the genetics of both parent plants.

Unfortunately, you won’t know whether an Open Pollinated plant has been cross-pollinated until a new plant is grown from the saved seed. Gardeners who intend to save seed from Open Pollinated plants should take precautions to prevent cross-pollination. Strategic placement, buffer zones, and netting are all common choices for preventing cross-pollination in the garden. Be sure to do your due diligence here and research isolation requirements for the varieties you’re growing. Squash and cucumbers are notoriously prone to cross-pollination and gardeners are often surprised by VERY funky-looking and tasting fruits.

All OSC seeds are Open Pollinated unless they are labeled “Hybrid.”

2. Hybrid

Hybrids are varieties that have been intentionally cross-pollinated in a controlled environment. Rather than leaving it up to Mother Nature, seed producers will cross-pollinate two genetically compatible varieties by spreading pollen from the male flowers of one parent plant into the female flowers of another parent plant.

The purpose of producing hybrids is to improve the plant in some way. For example, hybrids may be more resistant to common pests and diseases, tolerant of a wider range in temperature, smaller in size (popular right now for container gardens), and even improved in flavour!

Hybrids can only be made from reproductively compatible plants, meaning the exact same cross-pollination is possible in nature. 

Saving seeds from Hybrid plants is not recommended because results will be unpredictable. Since Hybrids are grown from two cross-pollinated parent plants, saved seed will revert back to the stronger of its parent genes. This entirely new and unique genetic combination may be quite different from the original plant. Additionally, many hybrids are actually sterile! Meaning they either can’t produce viable seeds or do not produce seeds at all. This is how you get seedless fruit!

3. GMO

Genetically Modified Organisms [GMOs] are created by a laboratory process. Genes from one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genome of a plant species with which they would normally be incapable of exchanging genes. In Canada, GMO seeds are not available to the general public. All OSC seeds are GMO-free.

GMOs are made from reproductively incompatible organisms, meaning the same combination of genes is not possible in nature. There are GMO plants that contain bacterial genes, for example.


4. Heirloom

Heirlooms are old varieties that have a long successful history in a specific region, usually 50-100 years minimum. “Heirloom” is not an official classification. What is considered an Heirloom will vary between regions, seed suppliers, and even families! A great way of understanding Heirlooms is to swap the word “Heirloom” with “traditional.” Heirlooms can be a great choice because their long-term success in the region implies local conditions are well suited to the variety. However, there are many factors in the success of a crop. Heirlooms are not guaranteed to do well, especially if the weather is sufficiently different from “normal,” as has been the case in recent years.

Often when gardeners contact us looking for Heirlooms, what they’re really after are Open Pollinated varieties because they are interested in seed saving. So here is a little brain teaser for you: All Heirlooms are Open Pollinated… but not all Open Pollinateds are Heirlooms.

5. Organic

The most important difference between Certified Organic and Conventional seed are the systems that produced them. Certified Organic seeds are produced by Certified Organic farms!

In Canada, there is a federally-regulated organic standard. The Canadian Organic Standard aims to ensure all aspects of farming are conducted in a way that promotes the overall health of the soil, plants, animals, humans, and the planet. Organic practices use a proactive, rather than a reactive approach to farming, minimizing or avoiding expected problems in the farm system. The health of the land is prioritized. Potentially harmful inputs are restricted or forbidden.

By choosing certified organic products, you are supporting Canada’s organic standards and their many environmental benefits. Read all about the Canadian Organic Standards here.




That’s it! Are there any other terms you’d like us to add here? Don’t hesitate to email our in-house garden team at with any other questions you have!

And tag us in your photos on Facebook and Instagram (@OSCSeeds); we LOVE to see what you are growing 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Open Pollinated, Hybrid, GMO, Heirloom, Organic – what are we talking about?

  1. Can the average gardener even purchase genetically modified seeds? They’re not available right?

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