Tag Archives: heirloom

What’s In a Seed: Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid vs. GM

If you’ve found your way to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange blog, you probably have at least the basic knowledge that not all seeds or seed companies are the same. However, if you’re new to gardening, you may not understand what makes seeds different. In this post, we’ll discuss open-pollinated, hybrid, and genetically modified seeds. We’ll also touch on heirlooms seeds and what makes them special. 


Open-pollinated refers to how the seeds are bred. In an open-pollinated system, plants are pollinated by other plants of the same variety, creating seed that will produce “true to type” or display the same characteristics each season. 

This type of seed makes up most of the seeds we carry at Southern Exposure. Many of the open-pollinated varieties we carry are also heirlooms, but we’ll get into that later.

Open pollination is the oldest method of plant breeding and is generally done by isolating a crop. Typically, a crop is isolated from other varieties by distance. However, they can also be isolated in greenhouses or by time or technical methods.

At Southern Exposure, we believe everyone has the right to save seed and grow food. Open-pollinated varieties allow gardeners and farmers to save seeds from their own crops. This helps adapt varieties to their local growing conditions and encourages food sovereignty.

When you save seed from only the best 50% of the plants, you can improve the variety over time. Learn more about what seed growers look for when choosing plants in our post, Selecting Plant Characteristics.


Hybrid also refers to a type of breeding. Two open-pollinated varieties are grown side by side. Using hand pollination, corn detasseling, or another technical method, growers ensure that every seed has received pollen from one breed (the father) and is grown on a distinctly different breed (the mother).

The seed from that breeding process is what’s known as an F1 hybrid. If F1 hybrids are grown and bred with each other, the resulting seed is known as an F2 hybrid. 

F1 hybrids often display what’s known as hybrid vigor. This means they may display better vigor, disease resistance, earliness, or other characteristics than their open-pollinated parents. Unfortunately, while the F1 generation is typically very uniform, the F2 generation often displays wide variation in traits. 

This wide variation in the F2 generation is the biggest drawback with hybrids. It means that seed saved from hybrids isn’t reliable, forcing growers to purchase from seed companies each year.

As I mentioned in my previous post, 8 Steps to Saving Corn Seed, we carry a few hybrid sweet corns. Hybrids can be helpful for market growers and farmers because of their uniform harvest time. That said, 98% of the seed we carry is open-pollinated (and hybrids are clearly marked) because we believe being able to produce your own seed is essential.


GM stands for genetic modification. It’s the process of creating seeds by taking a gene, through laboratory means, from one species and implanting it into another species where it would have never naturally occurred. 

At Southern Exposure, we have many concerns about these types of seeds. GM seeds cannot be saved year to year, meaning that gardeners and farmers must rely on the big companies that produce them and have the financial ability to purchase new seeds each year. 

These huge companies produce just a few varieties which are now grown all over the United States. The switch to just these few varieties has significantly decreased seed biodiversity. This loss in biodiversity has negatively impacted our food system and could have unknown ramifications in the future. As we lose biodiversity, we may be losing genetics resistant to certain diseases or that could handle the effects of climate change better. It’s also a loss of culture.

“The number one threat to seed biodiversity: corporate takeover of commercial seeds by major chemical/biotechnology companies.” – The Center for Food Safety

GM seeds also come with other drawbacks. Many GM varieties are specifically designed to be grown in combination with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. These chemicals negatively impact farmers’ health and force them to rely on these companies even more. They also harm water quality, wildlife, and soil health.

Many studies have also shown that these crops are detrimental to our health. The chemical herbicides and pesticides don’t just wash off; they make it into consumers’ systems. These crops also tend to have lower nutritional values than those open-pollinated varieties grown in gardens and on small farms.

In 2011, Southern Exposure joined nine other members of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and over 80 total plaintiffs in taking a stand for the protection of organic seed. Plaintiffs include agricultural organizations, seed companies and farmers. Read more about this landmark lawsuit here.

So What’s an Heirloom?

There’s no official definition of an heirloom. Heirlooms are just open-pollinated varieties that have been saved for generations. At Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, we consider those open-pollinated varieties bred before 1940 to be heirlooms. 

We love heirlooms for many reasons. First is their incredible flavor. Farmers and gardeners saved heirlooms year after year primarily because they tasted good. Sure, there were other considerations such as size, storage ability, and earliness, but generally, vegetables that didn’t taste great weren’t saved.

Many modern varieties and hybrids, on the other hand, also have to meet other standards. They must be uniform, ship, and store well, and be easy to grow. This is a great thing for large growers, but as anyone whose eaten a supermarket tomato will tell you, it’s not always great for their flavor.

Heirlooms are also important parts of our culture and heritage, help diversify our diets, can be adapted to our local growing conditions, and much more. Read more about why we love heirlooms here.

What Should You Do?

So, now you understand the importance of open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. You can support and join the movement of growers, foodies, and activists working to protect these varieties.

This year, if you’re growing a garden, we encourage you to choose open-pollinated varieties and try saving seed. We created a list of 22 reasons you should save seed in 2022!

Then you can share seed with others. Go to seed swaps or share some of your favorite open-pollinated varieties with neighbors and friends. You could even try to sell some seed and earn a little extra cash from your garden.

Lastly, even if you don’t have the space for a large garden, you can support those who do. Visit your local farmers market and ask if anyone has any heirlooms for you to try or encourage your local community garden to grow and save seed from open-pollinated varieties. 

7 Steps to Saving Cucumber Seed

Cucumbers are one of the most iconic veggies of summer! There’s nothing like a cool, crisp cucumber that you’ve grown yourself. If you love cucumbers as much as we do, you might want to consider saving some seed from your favorite variety. Cucumbers are an excellent plant to start with if you’re new to seed saving.

  1. Make sure you’ve isolated your varieties.

    If you planted multiple cucumbers and want pure seed, they need to be isolated. You can use time to isolate them by growing one variety early and another late. You can also use distance, keeping varieties separated by 1/8 mile for home use and a minimum of 1/4 to 1 mile for pure seed.

    However, if your varieties aren’t isolated perfectly, you can save seed anyway. You may end up with a cross you love.

  2. Make sure you have enough plants.

    You can save viable seed from a single cucumber plant. However, to maintain a variety over time, it’s best to grow at least five plants. If you’re saving seeds to preserve a rare variety, we recommend you grow and save seed from at least 25 plants.

  3. Select your best plants.

    You should try to save seed from plants that have performed the best through the season. Select those that are healthy, vigorous, and disease free with good-tasting fruit. You can find a list of other traits you may want to consider when saving seed here.

  4. Let your cucumbers ripen fully.

    Don’t pick seed cucumbers at the same time you pick them for eating. For seed saving, you want cucumbers to be fully ripe. They should be large, rounded, and yellow to orange.

    It’s best to leave them on the vine for a few weeks after the color change. They’ll begin to soften and should pull easily from the vine. If that isn’t possible, you can let them continue to ripen and soften in a basket out of direct sunlight. When you cut the cucumber open, the seeds should appear large and full.

  5. Harvest your seeds.

    To harvest the seeds, it’s easiest to cut the cucumbers lengthwise and scoop the seeds out with a spoon. Place all of the pulp and seeds into glass jars. Mason jars are ideal for this.

  6. Ferment and clean your seeds.

    In order to remove all the pulp from the seeds, you need to let them ferment a bit. Add a little water to your jars of seeds and pulp. The containers need airflow into them, so don’t put a lid on. However, you can cover them with a bit of cloth or coffee filter and a rubber band to keep out fruit flies.

    Let this mixture ferment for three days, stirring it once a day. It’s okay if you notice some mold growing on top. After three days, add a more water and stir the mixture again. The viable seeds will sink while the pulp and bad seeds will float, and you can pour them off the top. Drain your viable seeds.

  7. Dry your seeds.

    Lay your seeds on a single layer on paper towels, coffee filters, old window screens, or dehydrator screens (don’t dehydrate them, though). Let your seeds air dry naturally until they can be snapped in half.

  8. Store your seeds.

    Store seeds in an airtight container in a cool dark place. Cucumber seeds will remain viable for five years or more under the right conditions.

    Learn how to do a germination test here.

Are you saving seeds this year? Tag us on Facebook or use the hashtag #southernexposureseed on Instagram to show us your projects

Rainbow Garden: 39 Colorful Varieties

It can be easy to grow the whole rainbow in flower gardens, but you can do it with vegetables too! Growing a rainbow vegetable garden is fun whether you’re 5 or 55!

It can also be educational for children. It’s a fantastic opportunity to discuss light and rainbows, nutrients, and eating a balanced diet, as well as heirloom seeds!

Here are a few varieties you could use to grow your own rainbow.

Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomato

Red Varieties

Bloody Butcher Dent Corn

This gorgeous red dent corn is a Virginia variety that dates back to 1845! The stalks grow 10-12 ft. tall and produce two ears per stalk. Bloody Butcher is great for flour, cereal, or roasting ears and makes excellent cornbread.

Costoluto Fiorentino Tomato

An Italian heirloom from the Tuscany region, this tomato was one of the most heat tolerant and productive varieties in a 2011 U. of Georgia trial. It’s richly flavorful for sauces and stuffers or just slicing!

Large Red Tomato

Prior to the Civil War, one of the most commonly grown and best-documented tomato varieties in the country. Listed in the 1843 Shaker seed catalog at New Lebanon, NY, the Large Red tomato is vital for antebellum garden recreations and historic farms. Fearing Burr in his 1865 book stated, “From the time of the introduction of the tomato to its general use in this country, the Large Red was almost the only kind cultivated, or even commonly known.”

We introduced Large Red for historical reasons, but we were surprised and pleased during our 1996 trials to find that it became a favorite of a local restaurant’s chef.

Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomato

Always a favorite at our tomato tastings, Matt’s Wild is from seed collected in the wild near Hidalgo in eastern Mexico. The plants bear loads of intensely sweet, tart, and flavorful, ½ in. deep red cherry tomatoes. They are vigorous, disease-resistant, and sprawling, and self-sow readily.

Detroit Dark Red Beet

The Detroit Dark Red Beet dates back to 1892 and was developed from the popular variety Early Blood Turnip. It’s a widely adapted, very popular dark red beet that’s resistant to Downey Mildew.

They have excellent flavor, fresh or canned! You can also use these dark red beets as natural food coloring or dye. Try making pink frosted beet brownies!

Outredgeous Romaine Lettuce

NASA chose this stunning red lettuce for space farming. In August 2015, Outredgeous became the first vegetable grown and eaten on the International Space Station!

It was bred by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. Outredgeous has intensely dark red, slightly ruffled leaves that form loose heads.

Ruby Red (Rhubarb Chard) Swiss Chard

A beautiful addition to any garden, Ruby Red is worth growing for the color alone. The foliage is dark green on ruby-red stalks. It’s more frost tolerant than other chards, and the plants are especially striking in cold weather.

Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomato

Orange Varieties

Danvers 126 Carrots

An excellent carrot variety, Danvers is widely adapted, productive, and heat-tolerant. The dark-orange roots grow 6-7 inches long and 2 inches at the shoulder, tapering to a blunt point. They’re especially suited to growing in clay soil, and the strong tops aid harvesting.

Danvers is a good storage variety. These and other carrots can also be dehydrated and ground to create natural food coloring powder.

Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomato

These 1-2 lb orange beefsteaks are delicious and perfect for a tomato sandwich! This variety is a West Virginia family heirloom that was passed to Darrell Kellogg of Redford, MI, who selected and named it.

Connecticut Field Pumpkin

This pre-1700 cultivar of Native American origin is still the most popular variety of large Halloween pumpkins. Also called Big Tom or the Yankee Cow Pumpkin, it produces 15-20 lbs fruits that are bright orange, slightly ribbed, and vary in shape and size.

It’s good for canning, baking, and pies. Try making pumpkin spice waffles!

Cateto Sulino Flint Corn

Roughly translated as “Southern Unrefined,” Cateto Sulino produces ears up to 8 in. on 5-8 ft. stalks. The kernels are such a bright orange, inside and out, that Farm and Sparrow bakery in North Carolina says it’s caused customers to ask why they’d put cheddar cheese in the bread they’d baked using it!

Cateto Sulino is a blend of Argentine and Uruguayan landraces, selected in Tennessee by Joshua Gochenour for insect resistance, virus resistance, and bright orange color that indicates high carotene content. You can find more information on the history of this corn in its product description.

Persimmon Tomato

One of our personal favorites for its rose orange color and rewarding flavor, it produces beautiful persimmon-colored, rose-orange fruits. The fruits are typically 12-16 oz though early ones can weigh up to 2 lbs. The plants are well-branched, vigorous vined, and Late Blight Tolerant.

Renick Yellow Watermelon

Yellow Varieties

Renick Yellow Watermelon

Renick Yellow offers high yields of small melons with sweet yellow flesh. It has much tastier rinds than most watermelons have. This unique variety comes from the Renick Family of Ashville, OH, via Linda Roberts, Bill Ellis, and SSE. It was introduced in 2020 by SESE.

Aji Chinchi Amarillo Hot Pepper

Introduced by SESE 2018, this pepper is fruity and flavorful, with medium-high heat. It’s a heavy yielder and a favorite in our 2016 pepper taste test. Aji Chinchi Amarillo ripens from green to golden yellow.

Aji Amarillo peppers are a key ingredient in Peruvian cuisine. This rare “Chinchi” strain bears smaller peppers, about 3 × ½ inches, much earlier in the season than the standard Aji Amarillo. Thanks to Chris Watson for providing our seedstock.

Coyote Cherry Tomato

This variety grows wild in Veracruz, Mexico! It produces ½-inch pale yellow fruits on vigorous plants. The fruits are very sweet with unusual flavor overtones, including notes of vanilla. It was a favorite in our 2015 tomato tastings.

Dr. Wyche’s Yellow Tomatillo

Our earliest tomatillo and one of our sweetest, it produces heavy yields of 1½ inch cheerful yellow fruits plus an occasional cheerful purple fruit. It comes from the collection of Dr. John Wyche of Hugo, OK, one of SSE’s earliest members.

Lemon Cucumber

Lemon Cucumber is an excellent, never-bitter, old-fashioned cucumber flavor with a hint of nuttiness. It produces 7-foot vines covered with crunchy round yellow fruits. Harvest cucumbers at 1½ inches for pickling or 2 inches for salads.

Buhl Sweet Corn

Buhl produces 6-7 foot stalks that bear two ears of amazingly uniform sweet yellow corn of superior quality. You’ll have to fight the raccoons to enjoy it! It comes from Sandhill Preservation Center via SSE member B.W. White 1981.

Grandma Nellie’s Yellow Mushroom Bean Pole Snap

A heavy yielder of light yellow pods, this bean has the unusual characteristic of tasting somewhat like mushrooms when cooked. Tender when picked at 5 inches, this bean is a true treasure. The original seed came from Marge Mozelisky, given to her by her grandmother.

Cherokee Green Tomato

Green Varieties

Green Zebra Tomato

The emerald flesh of Green Zebra has good flavor. The 3-5 oz fruits ripen to yellow-gold with alternating dark-green zebra-like stripes and are gorgeous sliced or in salads. Well branched vines provide good foliage cover and have some resistance to septoria leaf spot.

This variety was developed in 1985 by Tom Wagner and was chosen by Alice Waters for the famous California restaurant Chez Panisse.

Cherokee Green Tomato

This is one of the best-tasting green tomatoes anywhere! It produces 8-12 oz fruits with green flesh and green-yellow skin with amber to red color on the blossom end.

Cherokee Green was selected from Cherokee Purple tomato by North Carolina grower Craig LeHoullier. It’s an Open Source Seed Initiative variety.

Cisineros Grande Tomatillo

A highly productive variety, Cisneros Grande produces large fruits up to 2½ inches making for easy harvest and processing. Most fruits ripen to yellow, while some stay green throughout. Fruits average about the size of a golf ball.

For a tart salsa, use the bright green fruits while the husk is still green; for a sweet and fruity flavor, wait until the husk dries. Plants grow 4-6 feet tall.

Marketmore 76 Cucumber

Marketmore 76 is an excellent high-yielding, 8-inch, bitter-resistant cucumber. This dependable variety grows well in the Mid-Atlantic region as well as the North and is a good choice for market and home gardeners alike. The dark green fruits are white-spined.

Black-Seeded Simpson Looseleaf Lettuce

Black-Seeded Simpson dates back to 1850 but is still a popular variety! This old standard is one of the earliest loose-leaf types. It’s good for early spring planting for the first lettuce of the season, but quality declines in heat or late plantings.

Blue Clarage (Ohio Blue Clarage) Dent Corn

Blue/Indigo Varieties

Blue Clarage (Ohio Blue Clarage) Dent Corn

A 1920 Ohio heirloom, this variety was selected from “Rotten Clarage.” It’s a highly uniform, semi-dent corn. Blue Clarage produces solid blue, two 8-10 inch ears on each sturdy 10 foot stalk. It has excellent Corn Rootworm resistance and tolerates crowding and smut better than many other open-pollinated corns.

Originally developed as a meal and feed corn, it has a higher sugar content than most dent corns and may be used fresh in the milk stage. As cornmeal, it has a sweet flavor. It mills easily and makes speckled blue and white flour, but white flour is obtained if the bran is sifted out. Older farmers who use this corn to feed chickens claim that the chickens will eat more, lay more eggs, and put on more meat.

Cherokee White Eagle Dent Corn

A beautiful blue and white corn with a red cob, Cherokee White Eagle occasionally produces an all-blue ear. Some people can see the image of a white eagle in the kernels! This variety produces 8-10 foot tall stalks, mostly two ears/stalk, and 6-7 inch stocky ears. It was the first variety deposited in the Cherokee Nation Seed Bank!

Blue Boy Bachelor’s Buttons

Bachelor’s Buttons are a fun edible flower. They can be used fresh or dried to adorn cakes, garnish salads, and add beauty to various other dishes.

Blue Boy is an old favorite for cut or dried deep-blue flowers. Plants are 30 inches tall and are especially suited for the backs of borders.


Borage is a bushy herb with bright blue edible flowers. It’s a good choice for attracting bumblebees and other pollinators to garden plots. The plants fade in the deep summer heat and humidity but can be reseeded for late summer/early fall harvest.

The leaves can be used sparingly to add a cucumber-like flavor in salads or for flavoring cool drinks. Medicinally, the seeds contain over 20% GLA (gamma-Linolenic acid), which is extracted and used commercially as an economical substitute for evening primrose oil.

Vates Collards

Vates Collards have stunning large blue-green leaves with good flavor. It’s slow bolting and produces high-quality frost-resistant greens especially suited to the Mid-Atlantic and the South. Plants grow up to 32 inches tall.

Cosmic Purple Carrots

Violet Varieties

Royalty Purple Pod Bush Snap Bean

Developed in 1957, these productive purple beans have a natural blanching indicator. When prepared for freezing, the purple pods blanch to green after 2 minutes of boiling. They’re easy to pick too! The purple pods are easily visible against the green foliage.

The plants have short runners and need either wide row spacing or a fence for climbing. They produce 5-inch pods that are slightly curved. They’re very meaty and flavorful, great for vegetable soup. The buff-colored seeds germinate well in cool soil.

Red Acre Cabbage

Red Acre produces beautiful, round, 5-7 inch reddish-purple heads that weigh about 3 lbs. The heads may sunburn in hot weather, so best for early spring and fall crops.

It adds festive color to coleslaw and is an excellent storage variety with resistance to cabbage yellows.

Cosmic Purple Carrots

Did you know that carrots were predominantly purple for the first few hundred years of their managed cultivation? Yellow and purple carrots were first recorded in Asia Minor in the 10th century.

Cosmic Purple produces purple-skinned 7″ carrots, orange and yellow flesh. They’re spicier than regular carrots; great for adding color to salads and stir-fries.

Dark Opal Basil

This ornamental dark purple basil can be used like common basil for seasoning. It’s beautiful in salads! You may find a few green leaves.

Black Brandywine Tomato

Black Brandywine is a stunning tomato to add to your garden! It produces large dusky rose/purple fruit with rich, sweet flavor and good yields.

Black Brandywine is a 1920s Pennsylvania heirloom. It’s a cross between Brandywine and Fejee Improved tomato. William Woys Weaver’s grandfather obtained seed from the breeder, Dr. Harold E. Martin.

Purple Tomatillo

Sweeter than green varieties! This variety produces 1 x 1½ in. fruits that ripen to dark purple. Plants grow 4-6 feet tall.

Ping Tung Long Eggplant

This Taiwanese variety produces shiny deep lavender fruits that can grow to 11 inches or longer. If plants are kept upright, the fruits can be kept straight for over ¾ of the length, making for impressive filets.

Ping Tung Long is a disease-resistant and high-yielding variety, producing over 20 fruits per plant in our garden. It also has excellent flavor.

Rainbow (Five Color Silverbeet) Swiss Chard

Rainbow Varieties

Purple Bumble Bee Cherry Tomato

The Purple Bumble Bee Cherry Tomato produces striking 1½ inch cherries, dusky purple with vivid lime-green streaks. They have a nice balance of sweetness and flavor. The tall, vigorous plants bear til frost. This tomato is widely adapted and has good splitting resistance.

Cherokee Long Ear Small Popcorn

This small kernelled variety makes surprisingly large pops, yielding a low hull/ corn ratio. It has great flavor and is highly ornamental. The 5-7 inch ears have many shiny colors, including red, blue, orange, white, and yellow. Stalks grow 6-8 feet tall.

The seedstock came from Merlyn Niedens, combining several strains of long ear Cherokee popcorn sent by Carl Barnes of Turpin, OK. Carl has helped save many of the Cherokee corns that came west over the Trail of Tears.

Rainbow (Five Color Silverbeet) Swiss Chard

Rainbow Chard must grow if you’re looking for colorful plants! Originally from Australia, a multicolored rainbow of plants with stems in shades of red, orange, pink, yellow, and creamy white.