Know Thy Seeds - Seed Buying Tips

What should a responsible gardener know before buying seeds?

Modern headlines in newspapers, magazines and websites often mention seeds.  From the doomsday seed vault to the "terminator gene" to genetically altered and patented plants, language about seeds and the world seed situation has captured our attention if not our imagination.  Fear abounds.  Calls for corrective action echo across the internet.  The seed market has reacted with banners claiming to point gardeners down the correct path toward salvation.  Rarely, however, do I read something that actually begins to explain what this all means to home gardeners and their need to find seed.  The following signposts are meant for guidance and are at best the place where discussions about correct action begin, not end.


The best way to find the seeds for your garden is to trade some seeds you have grown for the other seeds you need.  I attended a pot luck dinner in Siberia held once a year by seed savers.  Price of admission was a dish for dinner and some seeds saved from your own garden.  Over the next 2 hours or so I saw the most efficient, most complete system I have ever seen for exchanging seeds and the important stories and information needed to go with them.  Gardeners with seeds for the earliest and best tasting tomatoes ranked right up next to the gentleman with watermelon seeds.  They could trade first for anything they wanted.  I heard mumblings of plans for next year when gardeners would return with more of the rarest offering.  If you really want to be a successful gardener and seed saver, attend one of these events in your region.  If one is not available, start one.


If you cannot save or trade for all your seeds yet, buy from small seed companies.  The seed industry has become so centralized, only a handful of chemical and pharmaceutical companies now own the majority of the world's seeds.  In the late 1970's, a number of small regional seed companies started to reappear.  All were dedicated at some level to regional self-reliance.  All helped maintain our precious genetic diversity.  All sell some treasures that could probably grow in all of our gardens.  Support these people.  They do good work.


Open-pollinated seeds offer gardeners a predictable path to save their own seeds.  Gardeners can actually improve a variety from year to year  by selecting seeds from open-pollinated plants that do best in their own conditions.


Heirlooms are treasures.  Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties with a history, a story.  Not all open-pollinated varieties are treasures for everyone, everywhere.  Get as much information as you can.


Buy organic seeds if you can.  We want, we need an agriculture that uses no biocides.  However, the vast majority of the world's seeds are not yet certified organic.  We also need diversity.  The sustainable strength of our agricultural ecosystem will depend on its diversity.  We need to find, grow and test as many different varieties as we can before they disappear.  If we collectively stop buying seeds now because they are not organic, we risk losing the diversity we so desperately need.  If the seeds you really want are not organic, buy them anyway.  Grow them yourself organically and save the organic seeds.


Buy untreated seeds.  Treated seeds are seeds coated with chemical fungicides or inoculants.   Fungicides are meant to increase germination in cold and wet soil.  Treated seeds, by law, must be dyed.  Chemically treated seeds are not allowed for use on certified, organic gardens and farms.  ALL Seeds Trust seeds are untreated.


Collect your own native seeds if you can.  Local native plant societies are a great place to learn where and what to find and what to leave alone.  Buy natives to experiment with in your own landscape.  Start small.  Expect the project to take longer than you think.  Learn to manage the natural plant succession.  When looking to buy natives remember the following:  The definition of what is native is imprecise.  Natives may take 3-4 years to bloom.  The native seeds and plants you want may not be for sale.  Many non-native plants like lilacs are adapted and easy on your environment.  Avoid non-native pioneer species.