With the coming of January, New England has finally had cold weather. It’s an excuse (like I needed one!) for an extra mug of java, burrowing down under my comforter, while holding my coffee mug in one hand and flipping through pages with the other. Cold weather means I make more time to read. While most days reading is code for researching, some days I get to imbibe in other options, like catalogs. The other day my friend mentioned she was going to snuggle under her quilt with her seed catalogs. January used to mean tax forms and seed catalogs in our mailbox. Today, gardeners can still rely on seed catalogs. They are a symbol of hope and mark the passage of seasons. 

Going back several decades, selecting seeds to grow was fairly easy. Today, with growing “zones” in mind, many gardeners are concerned with “heirloom”, “hybrid” and “GMO”. These terms can be confusing. Hopefully, this primer is a useful start, but I also recommend searching out area experts, as they are knowledgeable in knowing what grows in your area, able to provide tips on fighting plant disease, unwelcome insects and importantly, which options are easiest to start. Case in point, a friend who was new to gardening, tried growing beets. Note, I said tried. Beets are not easy to grow. If you are a newbie, start with green beans, not beets. Green beans are friendlier and more versatile.

So let’s start with zones. Zones are regions determined geographically on plant hardiness based on temperatures. This is really important when considering growing any plant life. I know some gardeners have tried to grow plants not meant for their zones, and even I have been guilty of this. It most often does not end well and is not worth the effort. Ove the years, boundaries have changed.  Don’t think this supports an argument for climate change, which is based on 50-100 year data.  Zones are based on 30 years.


GMO stands for “genetically modified organisms”. They are not organic, nor support genetic diversity. There are heated discussions over the upsides and downsides of GMO seeds. I stick with companies with which I’ve gained confidence their seeds are reliable and not GMO. Growing non-GMO is a dedication to preserving and protecting a safe and genetically stable seed supply. If buying non-GMO is important to you, check seed companies for “The Safe Seed Pledge”. While it is not an infallible list, the companies who sign this pledge do not knowingly sell non-GMO seeds. The list includes companies from Europe, United States, and Canada. It is a voluntary pledge with the list of signers growing steadily since 2013. I suggest checking with www.highmowingseeds.com/the-safe-seed-pledge.html for more information.

Heirloom” sounds as nice as it is. The taste and quality is beyond compare. Heirloom traits are based on age, pollination and quality. They are almost all open-pollinated, which means they are pollinated by the wind, birds, and insects. Some experts say they are those varieties grown before 1950, when hybrids were introduced. Heirlooms support genetic diversity. They are essential to protecting our food supply. This is important, because if we only grow a few crop varieties and they get wiped out by drought or disease, what do you have left? Nothing to eat, that’s what! This is what happened with the Irish Potato Famine and the Gros Michel banana.


Heirlooms help the farming economy. To be assured of a variety and preserve lineage, you have to have a market for variety. This means eaters need to eat varieties of fruits and vegetables. This can be of benefit nutritionally, as well, and can also add a bit of food adventure with lots of textures and colors. You aren’t likely to find them in grocery stores. Your best bet is growing your own, donations from friends, or farmer’s markets.


Hybrids are cross-pollinated using two parent plants. Generally, the ones you find in catalogs are grown from a controlled process, but this happens in nature, as well. They are formed from different, but related plants. Hybrids can better stand disease, insect attack and be adapted to climate change. However, you don’t preserve the initial parent. In just the first generation, you may not have preserved the trait you wished.  Over the course of several generations, you have created an entirely different plant.

I recommend buying from local growers and seed savers. Note SNAP benefits can be used for seed and edible plant purchases.