Jan 2, 2012

How to Buy Vegetable Seeds

Link'Tis the season of seed catalogs - when gardeners everywhere dream up their best, most fruitful vegetable gardens yet. But before you send off any orders, stop to consider whether you're falling into some common gardening traps.

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.

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.Link


  1. I've never had a vegetable garden--and admire those that do! And love to cook--thanks tons for this--this is wonderful info!!! It makes it not quite so intimidating!!!

  2. NC Mom, if you love to cook, you oughtta try growing a few things. There is NOTHING like fresh from the garden produce!

  3. For the record, my brother-in-law, who is a professional grower for a nursery outside of Salem, OR, highly recommended Park Seeds to me years ago. Thanks for the reminder. I'd forgotten about them. Now, I have a catalog request in (as I receive my 2nd Burpee catalog in the mail in as many weeks!)

  4. Great, Liberty. They also have an online catalog, if you're anxious to start winter sowing :)

  5. I planted my first vegetable garden last year and it wasn't all that successful so I found your article very helpful. And yes, I did purchase my seeds from a local chain store (blushing). Thank you for some much needed insight!

  6. Vegetable seeds, I encourage you to read the Gardening 101 posts on this blog. Seed is definitely an important factor, but so is sun, soil, and water. If you have any questions, let me know!

  7. I find it easier to figure out what I want by looking at a catalog... Archaic of me, I know, especially since I love technology, but I honestly prefer a hard catalog to look through. :) Go figure.

  8. U understand, Liberty. I'm the same way...although I'm not sure why.

  9. Aside from these tips, the seeds that you’re going to buy should be based on what your family eats. This is very helpful for beginners because many of them find it hard to choose what crop to grow. And if you’re just starting, I suggest to start small and to keep your enthusiasm high. :D