The best part about this time of year is planning your garden with all the flowers, vegetables, herbs or berries you want to harvest all summer long. But then you get to the seed-shopping phase, during which you encounter a wide array of strange terms that can make your gardening turn from a fun hobby to something resembling a science experiment. Hybrid? Open-pollinated? Cultivar? It can seem confusing to even the most seasoned gardener.
Never fear. Shopping for seeds is pretty easy once you understand what a few seed-speak terms mean.
Variety: A "variety" is simply a version or strain of a plant. Different varieties have different characteristics, for instance, better disease resistance or a flavor different from other varieties of the same plant. You might be willing to buy a "tomato" in the supermarket, but if you are growing your own, you'd probably rather buy "Brandywine," "Sweet Million," or other varieties with better flavor that may not be able to travel the thousands of miles required of grocery-store tomatoes. You may also see the term "cultivar" (literally cultivated variety), which is used pretty much interchangeably with "variety" in the seed world.
Organic seeds: Seeds marketed as organic were grown on a certified-organic farm and have not been treated with pesticides or coated with chemicals to prevent rotting or premature sprouting. They've also never been genetically modified (GM) with things like bacteria or other plant DNA (more on GM seeds later). Buying organic seeds is worth it because it protects the environment and people on seed farms from harmful pesticides. You're also supporting organic agriculture and breeders who are working to develop new varieties that do well in organic growing conditions.
However, if you can't find organic seeds in the variety you'd like to grow, go ahead and buy conventional seeds. The amount of synthetic chemicals riding along with a seed is very tiny, with one exception: seeds coated with fungicide to keep them from rotting before they sprout. Seed catalogs and seed packets usually note if seeds are treated so you can usually avoid them. Also, the FDA requires seeds treated with poisonous chemicals to be dyed—those I've seen are usually shocking pink— to prevent confusion.
Pelleted seed: Some tiny seeds are available in "pelletted" form. This basically means that the seeds themselves are coated with some inert material (usually clay) that dissolves once you plant the seed. The idea is to make tiny seeds easier to plant and also allows you to distribute them in the soil in a more uniform way.