Will Cheap Seeds Grow? Characteristics Of Good Quality Seeds

A gloved hand holding packets of seeds over a garden bed
(Image credit: RossHelen)

We all want the best for our garden, but what are good quality seeds? The terms can be confusing. Heirloom, open pollinated, hybrid, resistant, and more descriptors pervade the language when it comes to seeds. Are some seeds better than others? We will investigate the terms and meanings behind seed definitions and get to the bottom of the characteristics of good quality seeds.

How to Select Good Quality Seeds

The world of advertising and product labeling is a murky one. On the one hand, our eyes are inundated with visions of perfection and on the other hand, reality may not be all that it seems. Many of us are savvy buyers and wise to the ways of visionary and literary exaggeration. But even the most knowledgeable gardener can be tricked into believing one variety or brand of seed is better than another. That is why it is important to know how to select good quality seeds.

Understanding Seed Packets

To understand the characteristics of good seeds, it's important to read the whole packet or catalog description. Deciding what is best for the garden is a very individual choice. It will depend on preference, garden size, amount of harvest desired, soil type, growing season length, and so much more. Before you buy, consider the following:

  • Time to harvest
  • Size of mature plant
  • Cool or warm season crop
  • Insect, disease, and bolt resistance
  • Growing conditions
  • Year of seed packet
  • Climate zone

Why Are Some Seeds So Expensive?

The most expensive seeds will be rare or heirloom varieties. Fair market production costs must also be reflected in small farm acquisitions of seed. The costs to harvest, package, and label seed is more expensive in a small production than a large scale seed company. Even with larger companies, the cost of seed may soar due to intellectual property, patents, and other legal and business concerns. New breeding programs are responsible for making seeds hardier and more productive, but that research costs money, and this cost is passed on to the consumer.

5 Types of Seed

The 5 types of seed are hybrid, heirloom, organic, GMO, and open pollinated. There are levels in between, of course, and and even specifically non-GMO seeds. Each of these has different attributes, history, and value, and some even contain patents.

Will cheap seeds grow as well as expensive seeds? In most cases, yes. In the U.S. seed production and sale is heavily regulated, and you can expect good quality seed in any variety that is labeled as an All American Selection. This AAS designation indicates the seed was tested in nationwide trials and performed well.

Heirloom vs. Hybrid

Hybrid seeds are the result of human intervention and science in most cases. They are the cross of one plant with another in the same species. The result is a mixture of both parent plants. This is often done to increase disease or pest resistance, enhance productivity, or provide a desirable trait. Such plants that are crossed by humans are termed F1 seeds.

Hybrid seeds are expensive because they must be hand pollinated in a special environment. Hybrid seeds may not be saved year after year, but they are hardier performers in the garden than regular seeds. Heirloom seeds are open pollinated plants that have the same traits from generation to generation. The plants are allowed to naturally self and cross pollinate. Heirloom seeds are generally identified by history, with most required to be at least 50 years old to get the designation.

Organic Seeds

In the U.S. and many other countries, organic seeds are heavily regulated. They must be certified organic to bear the label. The parent plants must undergo rigorous testing to meet listed criteria before they are allowed to be termed organic. Organic seed production is expensive and usually done on a small scale.

GMO Seed

GMO seed is not the result of a natural process. Also known as biologically engineered seed, genetically modified seed is made in a lab and requires very specific scientific skill. GMO seeds have had their DNA altered. Often this is done by adding a pesticide to make them pest resistant. Other reasons to make GMO seed are to increase drought tolerance, enhance herbicide resistance, add certain traits to a crop, increase crop yield and nutrients in food. These seeds may not be saved for planting later.

Open Pollinated Seed

Although many types of plants are open pollinated, they are not all heirloom plants. Open pollinated seeds breed true to type, which means the plants are identical to the parents. However, genetic drift can occur, resulting in natural hybrids. This is commonly the case with squash varieties.

Are Some Seeds Better Than Others?

What are the characteristics of good quality seeds? This is really a question that’s up to the gardener. Large seed producers often source seed from around the world. Due to shipping, the seed ends up with a huge carbon footprint. If this is important to you, source your seeds locally.

Small farms are being driven out of business and have a difficult time making money. If it is important to you to support small business, send your dollars to the small farmer.

Many gardeners feel GMO seed is potentially hazardous. As of yet, there is no data to indicate the seed and its food is harmful to humans, but the technology isn’t very old and the passage of time may be the only way to know for sure.

One good way to decide on varieties, once you have settled on a seller, is to ask your local extension office. They will know which varieties will grow best in your region, so you can rely on a verdant and productive veggie garden.

Bonnie L. Grant

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.