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Vegetable Seed Package Terminology

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Q: I was looking at a seed package at the store, and it said the seeds were pelleted, but it didn't say what that meant. Is it a good or bad thing if I want to grow organic vegetables?

A: You won't have any problem with most pelleted seeds. Very small seeds that are hard to handle, such as petunia, lettuce, carrots and others, are often pelleted with clay. This makes them big enough to go through machine processing, and they are easier to plant. Sometimes they are treated with water so that they start to germinate and then they are pelleted. They will sprout faster than a pelleted seed that is not treated and should be used in the current season, as they don't last as long as untreated seeds. Occasionally, the pellet may include a fungicide to help prevent disease problems, but it should say so on the package, and if you didn't see it mentioned it shouldn't be treated.

Crop seeds treated with fungicides are more common in commercial fields. It is an environmentally friendly way to protect the germinating plants because it is much easier to protect the seed and its vicinity with very little fungicide than having to try to treat a whole field. The USDA rules for certified organic seed production prohibit the use of fungicide-treated seeds.

You will see seed packages with the words "Certified Organic" on the label. The USDA's National Organic Program specifies that the seeds must come from crops grown without specific prohibited substances being used on the farmland for at least the three previous years. The prohibited substances include synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering. If the seed source country listed on the package is not the United States, then they may be following different organic production rules.

The term "Open-Pollinated" may be on the package, and it means that the seeds were produced from flowers that were pollinated by natural means, such as insects or the wind.

These plants will grow true to the characteristics of their parents. If you plant two open-pollinated types of plants close together (within a few hundred feet of each other), the seeds you get may be cross-pollinated and not come true to the parents. Many old heirloom varieties are open-pollinated.

A hybrid seed, sometimes listed as an F-1 hybrid, is produced when two pure open-pollinated lines are cross-pollinated to produce offspring that have some desirable characteristic developed from both parents. The characteristics could include disease resistance, better nutrient value, brighter color and so on. To produce hybrid seeds year after year, both of the old open-pollinated lines must be preserved. and the cross-pollinating is often done by hand. Seeds saved from the F-1 hybrids will not come true to the parents.

If you look at a crop of open-pollinated plants and find that one or several have bigger fruit or fewer insect-damaged leaves or whatever you decide is better, and you only collect the seeds from those particular plants, you are genetically modifying (and hopefully improving) the next generation. If you cross two plants because you like their characteristics and are hoping for an improved offspring, you are genetically modifying the plants, too. Farmers and plant breeders have been improving plants the same way nature does since the beginning of time. This genetic modification can also be done by high-tech methods, and in both cases the result is called a genetically modified organism, or GMO.

On the other hand, combining the genetic material of two different kinds of organisms, such as corn and bacteria, results in a genetically engineered organism, or GEO. There are no GE crops available to gardeners.

E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg at info@greenerview.com. To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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