Often newbies purchase their seeds cheaply from stores like Walmart or Home Depot, never realizing they are inferior and less likely to grow well. As Steve Solomon, former owner of a successful seed company, once wrote, most seed companies consider home gardeners gullible. "You can sell the gardener the sweepings off the seedroom floor," a salesman once told Solomon. When seeds "germinate badly or fail to yield uniformly and productively...[home gardeners] wonder if it was their watering, their soil preparation, the depth they sowed at, or any of a handful of factors they are uncertain about. Almost never does the home gardener blame the seed," Solomon writes in Gardening When it Counts.
Many other gardeners purchase their seeds from a well known, national seed company, like Burpee's." That might be a slightly better choice, but I'd like to suggest there's an even better place to purchase your veggie seeds: From a regional seed supplier. Such companies grow and sell seeds that are most likely to thrive in your climate. For example, if you live in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, a good place to shop is Territorial Seed. All their seeds are grown in the Willamette Valley - and therefore are well suited to that region. If you live in that area, you might also consider purchasing your seeds from a company located in the Northwest, where the climate is similar to the Northwest. (And if you're feeling really adventuresome, you could purchase seeds from England or parts of Canada, where weather is also similar to the Pacific Northwest.)
How do you find such regional seed sources? A Google search will usually do the trick. Or, to find seed sources listed by state, check out Mother Earth News' Best Garden Companies. You can see how reliable a seed company is by reading the reviews over at Dave's Garden. Steve Solomon recommends the following:
For short season climates ("This area comprises the northern tier of the...United States and that part of southern Canada within a few hundred miles of the U.S. border."): Stoke Seeds, Johnny's Select Seeds, Veseys Seeds, William Dam Seeds
For moderate climates ("The middle American states...this is where the summer gets hot and steamy...and the winter is severe enough to actually freeze the soil solid at least 12 inches deep."): Stoke Seeds, Johnny's Select Seeds, Harris Seeds, King Seeds
For warm climates ("This includes the southern American states...The soil here never freezes solid; the summers are long and hot. The climate may be humid or arid."): Park Seed
For maritime climates ("...This bioregion is sometimes called Cascadia. It includes the redwoods of northern California, extends into Oregon, Washington, and the Lower Mainland and islands of British Columbia, always west of the Cascade Mountains. England, Ireland, Wales...have about the same climate...These regions usually have relatively cool summers. Rarely does the soil freeze solid in winter except at higher elevations and where is it isolated from the ocean's moderating influence."): Territorial Seed, West Coast Seeds, New Gippsland Seeds
Once you've selected a handful of potential seed sources, take your time browsing their catalogs or online stores. Consider:
1. Does it grow in my gardening zone? If you purchase from a seed company specializing in your region, the answer should always be yes. But if you choose to purchase from a seed company trying to sell seeds throughout the United States or North America, you’ll need to know your USDA gardening zone; every seed catalog should list the zones the vegetable is most suited to.
2. How many days does it take the vegetable to mature? Any time you choose short season vegetables, you’re probably going to get more food from them. They take fewer days to mature into a harvestable state, so you can replant and get additional harvests from more of their seeds. Also, if you live in an area where the warm season is only a few short months, short season veggies are an important key to getting any harvest at all.
3. Is it early season, mid-season, or late season? Some vegetables will only grow well when it's cool out, in the early spring or fall. Others require the heat of summer.
4. What are the growing requirements? Most vegetables need "full sun" - at least 6 hours of full sunlight daily, but there are a few that can tolerate more shade. Also, some food plants have special growing requirements like acidic soil or soil heavily enriched with nutrients.When browsing catalogs, you may also run across some seed lingo you aren’t familiar with:
Organic seeds: These come from plants that received little or nothing in the way of pesticide and chemical fertilizers. Unless seeds are specifically marked organic, gardeners should assume they are grown with chemicals.
Hybrids: These are seeds made by purposefully crossing two varieties of plants. They often are more disease-resistant and higher-producing than non-hybrids - but the food grown on them is much more bland and often less nutritious. If you save the seeds from hybrids, the resulting plants will not be disease-resistant, higher-producing hybrids; they will revert back to be one of the original parent plants. Also, some hybrid seeds are sterile, meaning they will not germinate and grow new plants at all.
Open pollinated: Non-hybrids that may or may not be heirlooms. These are excellent candidates for seed saving.
Heirloom: Old varieties that have been preserved for their great flavor or other good qualities. Most date to the 1930s or 40s. Heirlooms are open pollinated, and you can save their seeds.
Safe seed pledge: This indicates the seed seller will never knowingly purchase GMO or genetically modified seed.
GMO: Patented seeds created by removing or adding DNA genes to the plant. Most plants grown by home gardeners won’t be GMO, although corn, wheat, and squash could be. In recent news, farmers who claim GMO seeds blew onto their land and grew like weeds have been sued by the creators of GMO seeds for using that seed without permission.