The seed catalogs start rolling in around mid-December, but I try to ignore them until after the new year. Most are filled with juicy, full-color photos or highly-detailed spot illustrations of a panoply of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The accompanying descriptions run the gamut from matter-of-fact to boastful, their siren song sounding clearly in the midst of a cold, dreary winter. “Spring will be here soon,” they say, “you’d better go grab your credit card.”
But with all the options out there, how do you choose what’s right for you and your garden? Every winter I field questions about my seed sources, so I wanted to share some of my favorites with you today since spring is underway and it really is time to get your orders in! I hope to demystify the seed selection process a little with this post, but don’t blame me if you suddenly end up with even more irresistible varieties to try in your garden this year…
Here are my primary concerns when selecting companies from which to order:
1. Have they taken the Safe Seed Pledge?
According to the Council for Responsible Genetics, the Safe Seed Pledge “helps to connect non-GM seed sellers, distributors and traders to the growing market of concerned gardeners and agricultural consumers.” Here’s the text of the Safe Seed Pledge:
Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political, and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities.
This philosophy is very important to me. The seed for all of our transplants comes only from companies that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge. I will occasionally pick up some parsley or basil seeds from Burpee to use for fresh cutting (because their “Big Italy” and “Genovese” varieties are actually pretty great), but only because I know there’s no such thing as GMO parsley or basil and there’s no risk of GMO contamination with these seeds.
But I would never risk it for crops that are prone to GMO contamination, like corn and beets. As a matter of fact, you can go a step further for those seeds and purchase not just from a supplier that has taken the Safe Seed Pledge, but one which offers certified organic corn and beet seeds–which are, by definition, non-GMO.
Many seed companies have signed the pledge, so it’s easy to find everything you need from one of them. Visit the CRG Safe Seed Resource List for a complete listing.
2. Where are they located?
I’m a big believer in bioregional gardening and like to source as many seeds as possible from within the Southeast. Why is this important? Tomato seeds from Virginia will be far better suited to the rigors of the climate, pests, and diseases here in South Carolina than tomato seeds from California. Is it always possible to source bioregional seeds? No. Sometimes the variety you want can only be had from a company well outside your bioregion. For me, sometimes I can’t get a bulk pack of seed from a smaller company within my bioregion, but I can from a larger company further afield.
The concept of bioregionalism is even more important when it comes to medicinal herbs, but unfortunately there are few sources for some of the more esoteric medicinals in the Southeast. I would love to see an East-coast equivalent to Horizon Herbs arise (though Southern Exposure Seed Exchange does field a good selection of intermediate-level medicinals), but until then many of my medicinals hail from Oregon.
I do, however, make a point to source seeds or plant material of woodland botanicals native to the Southeast–such as ginseng and goldenseal–from my bioregion even if it is harder to track them down here. These plants are already difficult to grow and their success depends in large part on the beneficial microorganisms and mycorrhizae endemic to our hardwood forests. It only makes sense to source them regionally. (And many thanks to Chris Sermons of Bio-Way Farm for teaching me that and putting the brakes on my overabundance of enthusiasm when I was just starting to grow medicinal herbs.)
You’ll notice that I’ve said very little about price. That’s because it’s not a significant part of my decision-making process–it certainly impacts the bottom line, but I usually don’t have the time to shop around until I find the variety I’m looking for in the size packet I need at the absolute best price. I order so many seeds and shipping is so expensive these days that I try to consolidate my orders as much as possible. I have also set priorities for myself that almost always mean I’ll be paying more for my seeds than if I were to purchase national brands like Burpee and Ferry-Morse at local big-box stores or garden centers.
However, let me make a special note about those brands of seeds: your priorities will almost certainly be different than mine. That’s okay. If Burpee seeds are all you have access to or can afford, please purchase them. It’s better to grow something than to grow nothing at all. I don’t mean to suggest that national brand seeds can’t grow a good garden, but such seeds can come with hidden costs, just as conventionally-grown industrial foods do.
My Favorite Seed Sources
You might be surprised at how many options remain even after you apply the criteria listed above. That’s because there are literally hundreds of seed companies in the United States, carrying thousands of varieties of seeds.
As you order seeds from different companies and try them out in your garden, you’ll find yourself gravitating towards a handful of companies: these will end up being your favorites, and the first few places you’ll go when assembling a new season’s worth of orders. Then there will be others that offer high-quality product, but only carry a variety or two that you can’t live without–these will be your secondary sources. And all the rest will be your backups, ready to step in in case one of your favorites drops a variety or has a crop failure one year.
I’ve ordered from at least a dozen different companies in the last five years, but my favorites–by old standbys, my friends through thick and thin–number just four: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Horizon Herbs, Seed Savers Exchange, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Every year I check Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Virginia) first because they’re within my bioregion–I try to get as many varieties as possible from them, and they carry numerous varieties that originated in the Southeast or have a long history here. They have an especially prodigious and well-organized tomato selection, with lots of wonderful heirloom varieties, and their culinary and medicinal herb selection is very good. They also have lots of organic seed options, though not all of their seed is certified.
Horizon Herbs (Oregon) is my next stop, not just because I’m a huge Richo Cech fangirl but also because they carry the most comprehensive selection of medicinal herb seeds in the United States. Horizon is certified organic and their prices are great. Be sure to check to see how many seeds come in a given pack–while they’re always generous with their seeds, some larger seeds only come 10 to a pack and go fast while smaller seeds may be 100-200 a pack and last you a while.
Seed Savers Exchange (Iowa) is my stop for unusual heirloom varieties and some culinary herbs–I’ve started ordering more from them lately because it seems like they’re carrying more bulk options now. Most of their seed packs are a little small for my purposes and I often order multiples or bulk over just one packet. (On the flip side, this makes them a great source for those who need only a modest number of seeds.) Their varietal selection is excellent and includes many old heirlooms that you just can’t find anywhere else. Their catalog is also one of my favorites because of the rich, luminous photography–definitely a drool-worthy one. Seed Savers Exchange is actually a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and propagation of heirloom varieties–if you become a member, you get access to an enormous catalog of seeds grown and saved by other members. But you don’t have to be a member to order from their general catalog.
And Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Vermont) is my last stop, but certainly not the least–they carry many varieties in bulk that I can only get in small quantities from other companies, especially for culinary herbs. Their selection is huge and it can be a little overwhelming for beginners. If you’re growing a very small garden, there are probably better seed sources for your needs. But they’re an especially good seed source for large homesteading gardens, market gardens, and small farms. They also carry garden tools and greenhouse supplies, along with tools and supplies for constructing low tunnels and hoop houses, so they can be a one-stop shop for the small farmer.
Here are some other companies that I’ve sourced from and enjoyed in the past: Seeds of Change, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Kitazawa Seed Co., and Thyme Garden Herb Company.