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Miss Floribunda: What does non-GMO mean?

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Posted on: January 25, 2017

Dear Miss Floribunda,


Every January you tout a February seed sale and you always say that the seeds will be non-GMO. What does non-GMO mean? It’s fun to speculate: non-Gardening for Men Only; non-Generally Mediocre Options; non-Grossly Messy Offal — the possibilities are endless. If you are having a sale, when is it?
Just as Funny as You Are on Jefferson Street

Dear Just as Funny,

Before making a judgment on our comparative funniness, I would need to see what you wear on your head. You did send a picture, but I am old enough to recognize Carmen Miranda and her fruit basket headgear. Nonetheless, I thank you for the chuckle.

Yes, the Hyattsville Horticultural Society (HHS) will hold its Eighth Annual Seed Sale on Saturday, Feb. 4, in the Mary Prangley Room at the Hyattsville Municipal Building. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and along with the usual Hart Seeds selection, you will see unusual varieties from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. You might want to first drop in on the valentine-making party that Hyattsville Aging in Place will host downstairs and then come up for soup, cider and baked goods. You can take a look at our educational exhibits, books and garden items, and choose seeds, all of which are advertised as non-GMO, for your spring garden.

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” This is different from hybridization, which uses pollen from different plants to create new plants that will consistently have desirable characteristics from the parent plants. In contrast, genetic modification is a science in which bioengineers manipulate genetic material in a laboratory. My contact at the USDA, Dr. Jenny Greengenes, describes it this way: “Think of hybrids as analogous to dog breeding, having a cross between controlled lines like Labrador and Standard Poodle resulting in offspring like Labradoodles — predictable for the important traits. Genetic engineering might be more like making a spider-man from a kid, a spider, and a lab accident! And then mass reproducing …” A real world example, although it hasn’t come to market yet, is a tomato engineered with genes from Arctic flounder in order to make it resistant to frost. Generally, the aim of genetic modification is to produce traits that help plants withstand direct applications of herbicide or even produce it themselves. There is some disagreement in this country about whether or not these products should be labelled as genetically modified, as they are in Europe, but since that hasn’t happened yet, some farmers and seed producers just label their products as “non-GMO.” (It is interesting to see French products with the “Bio” label being sold here in gourmet stores for high prices when this term indicates to the French people that the food is genetically modified and, as a result, lower in price in France because it is less expensive to produce.)

One of the benefits of home gardening is that you choose how to fertilize your soil and how to repel pests, and you decide whether it matters to you if your seeds are labelled “non-GMO.” The upcoming HHS seed sale will offer you a choice among hybrid and heirloom varieties of seed. You didn’t ask, but let’s go ahead and define “heirloom” in this context. Heirloom seeds come from plants that are open-pollinated, which means they are pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. They either have been preserved for generations in a particular region or at least developed no fewer than 50 years ago. Heirloom vegetables are generally prized for their flavors. Although Hart Seeds offers many of these, HHS is always looking to expand its selections.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, located in Virginia, has been chosen as a second supplier because of its reputation for providing seeds of heat-resistant vegetables and flowers. You can choose among new lettuce hybrids whose leaves don’t turn bitter as soon as summer heat hits: Thai Oakleaf; Sweet Valentine, a cos (or romaine) variety with very sweet flavor; Drunken Woman, green with ruffled bronze colored edges; Crawford Bibb; or Jericho, bred for desert heat. They will greatly extend your lettuce season.

Along with Hart’s popular tomato hybrids (i.e., Early Girl, Big Boy, Mortgage Lifter), you can choose from Southern Exposure’s old-fashioned rarities: the 19th-century Arkansas Traveller; Abe Lincoln; an heirloom from Germany’s Black Forest called Eva Purple Ball; Granny Cantrell from the 1940s (Lettie Cantrell, the developer, died in 2006 at age 96); Matt’s Wild Cherry, from seed collected in the wild from Hidalgo Mexico; Black Prince, a garden jewel from Siberia — which has summers as hot as its winters are cold — and Cherokee Purple, reportedly of Cherokee origin. From Southern Exposure also comes newer tomato hybrids, such as Tropic VFN and Ozark Pink, both recommended for mid-Atlantic hot-humid areas, and Amy’s Apricot, voted best tasting tomato at the 2010 Monticello Tomato Tasting. Three varieties of tomatillo will be available,as well. Along with Hart’s usual selection of seeds for flowers that attract pollinators, we will have seeds for many native plants from Southern Exposure.  

We look forward to seeing you on Feb. 4!



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