KODIAK — February 18 is President’s Day. Makes me ponder about Thomas Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t just a gardener extraordinaire, he honestly liked to eat vegetables which, he said, “constitute my principal diet.” His role in linking garden and kitchen into a truly international cuisine was a pioneering concept in the history of American food. 

Jefferson’s Monticello garden was a melting pot of immigrant vegetables. Call it an Ellis Island of hardy plants. Get this: 330 varieties of 89 species of vegetables and herbs, and 170 varieties of the finest fruit varieties known at the time.

With a keen understanding of microclimates, Jefferson laid out the terraced beds along a south-facing slope. Thus, Jefferson’s garden supported the likes of tropical lovers such as sweet potatoes, peanuts, and lima beans in the same garden as cauliflower, endive, celery and other cool-weather crops.

In Jefferson’s day, the buying, selling, trading, sharing, and growing of seeds was fairly straightforward. Seeds were seeds. Terms like genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and hybridization hadn’t appeared in human consciousness. (Mendel’s pea plant experiments, conducted between 1856 and 1863, establishing many rules of heredity, occurred after Jefferson’s death in 1826).

Today, selecting and buying seeds is complicated. Gardeners wading through sets of confusing criteria can be daunting, like navigating a giant corn maze. Here are common and not-so common terms you might come across while traveling through seed catalogs and on the back of seed packets:


OPEN POLLINATED (OP): This is a non-hybrid variety; one that can reproduce itself in kind, demonstrating that it will come true from seed. In other words, if you love the color, taste or looks of a plant and want to save its seed from year to year, look for these.


HYBRIDS: Plant hybrids are produced using traditional breeding methods that have been around since the early 18th century. Two varieties are crossed to create a distinctive plant. Such varieties are often referred to as F1 hybrids. Keep in mind that seeds grown from hybrid plants in the second year, will not come true, that is, resemble their parents.


HEIRLOOMS: These are open-pollinated (OP) plants that have not been hybridized. People prefer heirloom (OP) plants because, unlike saving seeds from hybrid plants, seeds from OP plants will produce plants that will remain “true to type.” What you see is what you get.


GMOs: Genetically Modified Organisms diverge from both hybridization and heirloom seed saving in that they are produced using highly sophisticated technology that often implants DNA from entirely different life-forms (fish, bacteria, etc.) into the plant genome. As for all the issues related to GMOs, it’s truly beyond my understanding to explain it here. Suffice it to say, many people (and nations) are wary of them.


DISEASE RESISTANCE: A term that is meaningful only if you’re told what disease they mean. For example, VFN for tomatoes means resistant to verticillium (V) and fusarium (F) wilts and nematodes (N). 


PARTHENOCARPIC: Plant flowers are able to set fruit without pollination. Cucumbers and other plants grown in greenhouse spaces are often parthenocarpic.


DETERMINATE or INDETERMINATE: Refer to tomato plant’s growth styles. Determinate plants grow to a certain size, fruit all at once, and stop growing. Indeterminate plants are more vining and continue to grow and fruit until cold weather and/or lack of light stalls growth.


SCIENTIFIC NAME: With all those cutesy common names out there, it can be tough to tell what the plant really is. To be clear, pay attention to the botanical (Latin) names because they unlock critical information. For instance, the morning glory (which, according to my Mom, is an evil plant that chokes all other plants) is also known as bindweed, small bindweed and liseron des champs. But if you want to grow this flowering vine in your garden, look for “Convolvulus arvensis,” a plant bursting with trumpet-like blossoms. You will also spend countless hours untwisting rope-like vines from other plants’ throats.


PELLETED: Pelleted seeds are enclosed in a round pellet made from simple clay or another inert material to bulk them up. The process makes small seeds such as lettuce, carrots, and onions easier to see and sow. 


TREATED or UNTREATED: Treated seeds are generally coated with a fungicide. Check the packaging for specifics about the treatment. Note: Current rules for USDA certified organic production prohibit the use of treated seed.

In the May 21, 1824 edition of the American Farmer, a progressive agriculture tabloid of the day, published an article crafted by Jefferson called, “A General Gardening Calendar.” In this monthly guide to kitchen gardening, Jefferson instructed gardeners to plant a thimble spool of lettuce seed every Monday morning from February 1 to September 1.

Perhaps he was using this example as a discipline to be embraced along with saying your prayers, learning your ABC’s, or cleaning one’s dinner plate.

How are your Monday’s different form the other days of the week?

Perhaps Jefferson’s Monday morning ritual offers a life lesson, illustrating how simple, everyday habits ultimately shape our lives. For Jefferson, our epicurean President, the habit of sowing lettuce seeds every Monday must have smiled favorably on him, for he lived to the impressive age of 83.


Marion Owen has over 30 years of experience as a teacher and columnist. She’s on a mission to help busy people enhance their daily lives. To contact Marion or to sign up for her “Goodness from Kodiak” newsletter, go to her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com.

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