Organic growing methods are valid only if the soil, seeds and plants are pure. This means that the soil the plants are grown in must be free of pesticides, herbicides and chemical pollutants. Fertilizers must also be chemical-free. Even the building materials used for raised beds or trellises must be free of toxins. Pressure-treated lumber may contain harmful preservatives. Make sure the seeds and plants you purchase are certified organic.
Organic gardening is not new, but valid certification is very recent. Strict guidelines must be followed in order to label seeds or plants as organic. This means even the manure used as fertilizer must be traced to animals fed or grazed by organic means. When the label states something is certified organic, we can now count on it.
Hybrid Plants and Seeds
Hybrid plants are not always bad. Hybridizing takes the positive characteristics of two plants and combines them to produce a better plant. This may result in more disease resistance or a larger fruit. The problem is that seed harvested from these plants can have any combination of genes from either parent. Nurseries must use cuttings to reproduce the same plant. The harvested seed will be unreliable. Too much hybridization has resulted in the loss of heirloom varieties. Organic farmers and home gardeners grow heirloom seed and plants to help preserve old varieties. Heirloom plants often have built-in disease resistance and better flavor.
Growing transgenic plants is the newest form of hybridization. This is when the genes of two different species are combined to develop certain characteristics. This has been done with corn for awhile. Genes are combined to develop corn that is resistant to pesticides and herbicides. This way copious amounts of chemicals can be sprayed on the corn without affecting it. If organic crops are nearby, cross-pollination of heirloom species can occur. Organic farmers must go to great lengths to make sure their plants and seeds are free of contamination by hybrid and transgenic plants.
Open pollination is the oldest, most natural method. Wind and beneficial insects are allowed to pollinate plants without interference. This means compatible plants are grown a reasonable distance from plants that will cross with them. Another way to avoid cross-pollination is to choose plants that mature at different times. A certain amount of natural crossing can be acceptable. It may sometimes even result in an improved plant. Still, nurseries growing and selling organic plants and seeds must try to avoid cross-pollination. They need to assure customers that they are getting the seeds and plants they advertise. The safe distance will vary with each type of plant. Charts are available that will give distance recommendations.
Collecting Organic Seed
It is possible to collect your own seed from organic plants. Make sure that the plants or seed were originally obtained from open-pollinated organic plants. Continue using organic growing methods. Herb seed will develop after the flowers have withered. Examples are dill or cilantro. Allow the seed to mature on the plant. Most seed will turn a darker color when it is mature. Encased seed can dry completely on the plant. Some seed casings will pop open when the seed is ready. You can harvest mature seed just before it opens, or place a mesh screen under the plants to catch the seed as it falls. Some seeds develop inside mature fruit or vegetables. Examples are tomato, cucumber or pepper. Scoop out the seed and place it in a colander. Rinse the seed and separate it from the pulp. Remove any immature seeds. Take the fully developed seed and allow it to dry thoroughly. Store seed in a cool dark place in an airtight container. This is one of the best ways to assure purity.