Translating Seed Labels

Translating Seed Labels

By Jim Hole

Most of the information on seed labels is pretty straightforward. But there is certain terminology that can cause more than a little chin scratching. Here is a list of some of the more common.

GMO and GEO free seed.

GMO is an acronym for Genetically Modified Organism. GEO is similar except that the ‘E’ refers to engineered. “Non-GMO/GEO” and “GMO/GEO Free” both allude to the fact that there haven’t been any genes from a different species inserted into the DNA of the seed that you are buying.

Really, the scientifically correct term for the insertion of DNA into another organism is called “Recombinant DNA technology” not GMO nor GEO. But suffice to say that NO seed can be sold here in Canadian Garden Centres that has had DNA from a different species inserted into it. 

Germination Percentage

Some, but not all, seed companies include the percentage germination of each batch of a particular seed variety. Seed germination percentages are often into the 80’s and high 90’s but don’t be surprised to find some seeds down into the 50% range. I’ve seen a number of pepper varieties that have a rather large number of non-viable seeds so don’t be surprised when only about a half of your seeds germinate. It’s just the nature of the beast!


Sometimes – like is often the case with tomato varieties – letters like ‘VFN’ will appear on the label. 

These letters are really geared to professional growers but they still apply to home gardeners. VFN means Verticillium, Fusarium and Nematodes .

Yes, I would say that these names are headache inducing for many gardeners! But the letters just allude to the fact that a particular tomato variety, with these letters on its package are resistant to two specific plant diseases and a worm-like root attacking pest.

F1 Hybrid

Hybrid can mean different things when it comes to seed but an example that, I think, works for most gardeners are corn hybrids.

Plant breeders might be trying to breed a corn with sweet kernels and early maturing. One variety might be sweet but late. The other variety might be starchy  but early. So breeders will inbreed each variety (no outside pollination) for several years and then bring together the two highly uniform varieties that are subsequently ‘cross pollinated’. 

If everything goes well then—voila—a new hybrid variety that is sweet and early!

Organic (Certified)

Organic refers to the fact that packaged seed is derived from plants that are grown from certified organic plants. In Canada, any seed labeled organic must be certified as organic according to the Canadian Organic Standards under the authority of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
In a nutshell, the rules that apply to growing certified organic plants applies to seed. So, if you organic gardening is your thing, there are plenty of organic seed varieties worthy of trial. 

Heirloom Variety

Heirloom seeds are different. They can be grown organically, but what really makes them distinct is their heritage. Essentially, heirloom plants have been handed down from generation to generation. Typically, the term heirloom is applied to ‘open-pollinated’ vegetable and small fruit varieties that have been around since at least World War 2, but the heirloom definition isn’t hard and fast. Open-pollinated, in its simplest definition, means that heirlooms haven’t been hybridized.
Tomatoes are often the first seed that comes to mind when one thinks of heirloom varieties. Some of my favourite tomato varieties are from the heirloom category. If you haven’t tried heirloom tomatoes, by all means, give them a try. Here is a brief list of some of the best:

  • Cherokee purple

  • Black Krim

  • Stupice

  • Mortgage Lifter

  • Pruden’s Purple

(last update: January 29, 2019)