Happy Spring everyone! I can’t believe it’s finally here!
I’m a bit late to the seed-purchasing extravaganza this season, but just in case you are not finished shopping yet, I’d like to share with you where I buy my seeds and why.
Disclaimer: I receive no profits or products from any of the companies mentioned in this post.
I’ve stuck with sustainable gardening for as long as I had a garden of my own, but I never paid much attention to where my seed came from. After all, as long as I grow it sustainably, that’s all that matters – right? Well, it finally dawned on me that the answer is: no…
You may notice that in this post I use the term “sustainable” instead of “organic”. I’d like to explain why. People tend to think that if the product is labeled “organic” it must be produced sustainable. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily the case. USDA regulations allow organic growers to use a whole selection of “natural” pesticides, which are as destructive to the wildlife as synthetic ones. For example, permethrin is a plant-derived organic pesticide. It is very efficient, yet non-discriminate, and kills bees, amphibians and other precious wildlife along with any pest insects. So as with everything else, conscious consumerism is a must. Now that I’ve said this, let’s get back to the seed production issues.
Of course, even if you use conventionally produced seed, but grow it organically, the resulting product will indeed be clean of pesticides, and you won’t contaminate your garden with synthetic fertilizers in the process. However, those seeds we purchase, they come from plants, too. So if I buy conventional seed, it means it has been grown on a conventional farm, which did harm the environment through the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and the like. And thus, I myself contributed to those practices.
On the other hand, when I purchase organic seed, I support the farmer that uses gardening practices I believe in. An added bonus: organic seed suppliers often have better variety than conventional seed suppliers and provide more information on how to best grow those plants. And besides, these days organic seed costs are so close to conventional, you can barely call it an investment anymore!
So, here are my favorite seed suppliers.
Botanical Interests are my go-to source of seed, and I’ve been using their products for 10 years, which is as long as I’ve lived in the US. They offer a variety of heirloom and F1 hybrid seeds, many of which grown organically. I particularly like the diversity of their catalog: for example, back in Russia, Yarrow is only considered a wildflower and I doubt you can actually buy seed. Yet this year I am trying the Colorado Blend Yarrow Seeds, offering several colors, not just the wild white variety!
Over the years I have tried a number of varieties from Botanical Interests, always with great success, and this year I am trying the “Made in the Shade Flower mix” – very exciting, because my balcony garden is mostly shady, but I want flowers there, too!
The family-owned company was established in 1995 and is based in Broomfield, CO. I have reached out to Botanical Interests to ask some questions about their practices, and they put me in touch with April Shelhon, their marketing horticulturalist. I was particularly interested in where the seed comes from, and here is what April told me: “Like most seed companies we do buy from suppliers and direct from growers. We do a lot of research to make sure those suppliers and growers are not affiliated with GMO companies […,] and in July 2018 all of our seed is officially verified by the Non-GMO Project.”
The company’s main goal is “supplying locally-owned garden centers with quality products that gave good, simple instructions to gardeners”, and in my humble opinion, this is exactly what they do. As you can see in the pictures, the seed packets are not only beautifully illustrated, but provide detailed growing instructions. Not all the seed sold by Botanical Interests is certified organic, but it is always stated clearly on the packet.
Renee’s Garden is another wonderful US-based seed supplier. They offer a variety of heirlooms, hybrid and certified organic seed, as well as some roots and tubers. Founded by Renee Shepherd in 1985, it is proud to call itself “a company run by gardeners, for gardeners”. In my mind Renee’s Garden and Botanical Interests are interchangeable. I hope this does not offend either one – they are both exceptional! Both companies have the most amazing seed packets with gorgeous illustrations on the front and detailed growing instructions on the back.
When I emailed the company with my questions about where the seed comes from, I got a response from Renee herself, and here is what she had to say: “We buy seed from seed producers both large and small literally all over the world. I try to buy my varieties in the country where they are most popular or where they originated. So, for example, I buy a lot of our basil seed from Italian seed producers…… When we decide to carry a variety , we carefully evaluate it in our trial gardens which are in a mild winter climate here in Northern California, and in a very cold winter climate in Middlebury Vermont. Then, I can write the growing instructions based on our own growing experiences. We choose varieties for flavor and easy culture and flowers for form, color and fragrance.”
Not all the seed sold by Renee’s Garden is certified organic, but the entire company holds sustainable agriculture as an integral part of their mission, and they never cell treated or genetically-engineered seed, adhering to the “Safe Seed Pledge” developed by the Council for Responsible Genetics.
Adaptive Seeds is a company I learned about just this winter, so this is my first year growing their products. However, I was so impressed by their mission, that I just had to share this with you! Their motto is “Bringing biodiversity back”, and all of their seed is grown in the Pacific Northwest and open-pollinated. Adaptive seeds’ goal is to “steward rare, diverse and resilient seed varieties for ecologically-minded farmers, gardeners and seed savers”, and one of my favorite features is that the source of the seed (the actual farm that produced it) is always stated in the variety description, along with a very detailed description of the plant’s features.
A whooping 99% of seed sold by Adaptive Seeds is certified organic, and they provide a complete list of all their seed growers on the About Us page. The final feature that I liked a lot is that any variety can be purchased in a range of sizes from standard to bulk, which is awesome for things like salad greens that you have to keep re-seeding throughout the season. Seriously, you can get a pound (!) of lettuce seed for just $75 (that would be over $500 in standard size seed packets).
I have first heard about Adaptive Seeds from A Way To Garden podcast, and I strongly recommend you listen to that episode, where Margaret Roach (the podcast’s host) interviews Sarah Kleeger, one of the company’s co-founders. I was so inspired by that interview, that this year I am growing two grain varieties – amaranth and quinoa, which I purchased from Adaptive Seeds. Both are frost-tender plants, so you do have to start indoors, and here are my seedlings at the moment:
High Mowing Organic Seeds is another exciting company selling exclusively organic seed produced in the US. Tom Stearns is a passionate gardener and seed saver, and he started his first company, the Good Seed, in 1996 with just 28 varieties, many of which grew in his backyard. Today, the company sources its huge variety of seeds form independent organic seed farmers, including Tom’s 40 acre farm in northern Vermont.
I have only learned about High Mowing Organic Seeds this winter, and this will be my first season growing their seed. Unfortunately, thanks to my local postal service, my order arrived only a few days ago (3 weeks late), so I can’t share with you any images of thriving sprouts yet. However, I have read and heard so much about the company from many sources I rely on every day, that I absolutely had to tell you about this company, and I am sure it will be one of my favorites from now on! I encourage you to listen to an interview with Tom Stearns in another episode of Margaret Roach’s A Way To Garden podcast, as well as an interview with Joe Lamp’l on the Joe Gardener podcast, where Joe and Tom discuss why it is essential we support our sustainable seed producers. And if you prefer video to audio podcasts, here’s a link to the episode on Growing A Greener World.
As with other seed suppliers in this post, I approached High Mowing Organic Seeds with a few questions about their practices, and received detailed answers from Maggie Highby, the company’s marketing manager. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of their seed comes from about 60 independent farms across the US. Initially, I was concerned to learn that a fraction of seed comes from other sources, sometimes outside of the country, but here is what Maggie told me about this: “We also work with other seed companies who have their own organic breeding and research programs to purchase organic seed they produce through their network of growers. Some of these seed companies work with farmers who grow seed outside of the U.S. This highly diversified sourcing allows us to offer varieties that are widely adapted to a variety of growing conditions, which in turn allows the farmers and gardeners who purchase our seeds to experience success in their individual locations all across the U.S. and Canada. It also gives us the opportunity to offer more certified organic varieties in our seed catalog than if we were only growing seed in a single location or in a handful of locations; as you know, the offerings available for certified organic seed are significantly less than those for conventional seed. It is our goal to bring more high quality organic seed to growers each year we are in business“.
My other concern with organic labeling is “natural” pesticides, and I was relieved to find out that High Mowing Organic Seeds shares my values: “While broad spectrum pesticides can be an effective organic treatment, some of these organic-approved pesticides can still be harmful to the environment and to human health – furthermore, the development of resistance in pests remains a concern whenever we rely heavily upon a single class of pesticide for control. For these reasons, High Mowing’s own growing practices utilize a wide range of holistic management techniques in order to minimize dependency on any single class of inputs, including pesticides. In turn, we encourage our seed farmers to approach organic seed production with a holistic perspective, prioritizing soil health and nurturing the natural symbiotic relationships that exist on organic farms. We work hard to find seed farmers whose values align with our own, and whose growing practices prove to not only produce the healthiest, most vigorous organic seed, but also do so with a deep respect for the land upon which they are growing and for the communities – both human and wild – that are impacted by their work.” Needless to say, the words “seed production with a holistic perspective” just melted my heart!
Garden bloggers and authors. What can be better than purchasing seed form a
gardener whose work you read and admire? The correct answer is: nothing. I have been a fan of You Grow Girl project for a while, and last summer I found out that Gaya Trail, the genius behind You Grow Girl, also sells seed straight from her own garden! Gayla loves tomatoes, so these are the seeds she offers most varieties of (I’ve counted 21) – all unique and often rare. What I am most excited about with You Grow Girl seeds are all the uncommon greens she offers, like red orach, epazote, purple shiso and garlic chives, that are often hard to find elsewhere. And of course, every seed pack comes with detailed growing instructions.
So here they are, my favorite seed suppliers as of Spring 2019. Even though I put these companies in an order, there is no sort of first- to fifth-best rating here, the order for me is more historical, if anything, in terms of when I found about and started using each supplier. And even as I am writing this, I keep learning about more seed companies and projects, like Sow True seed and the Seed Savers Exchange that I can’t wait to try and tell you about.
I hope you find this post helpful, and I’d love to hear about your favorite seed sources as well!