Choosing a Seed Company

In December last year, the first gorgeous, glossy seed magazine arrived in my mailbox. After fleeing to a private spot to drool review it in detail, I started thinking about how we choose where to buy our seeds. If the early bird truly does get the worm, Seeds of Change, sender of that first beautiful catalog, would have gotten my money this year, just as they have the past several years. But this year, I’m choosing my seeds from other sources and perhaps explaining my reasoning will help you make your decisions too.

Greenwashing at its Worst
A few years ago, Seeds of Change switched from paper seed packets to recyclable #1 plastic packets. Their claim was that this was better for the environment because the seed packets took less energy to produce and were recyclable. This, to me, smacks of greenwashing. First, because using virgin plastic may take less energy, but the more likely reason to make the switch would be because it’s cheaper for Seeds of Change, not because it’s better for the environment.

Think about it. Do you know any gardeners who are advanced enough to be starting things from seed who don’t compost? Doubtful. And it takes a lot less energy (i.e. no energy at all) to put a paper seed packet in the compost than it does to use fossil fuel to transport #1 plastic to the recycling center and more fossil fuel to then recycle the plastic.

Ridiculous Shipping Practices
While I can appreciate the huge growth Seeds of Change has seen and how difficult it must be to keep seed in stock with unprecedented demand, I will never understand how a company that says it’s committed to the environment (their site even says they’re working on being carbon neutral!) can justify breaking up my order into so many multiple shipments that I literally received over twenty gigantic envelopes, some with a single seed packet in each.

When questioned, they claimed they were trying to get me the seed as quickly as possible, but in some cases I received multiple individually-packed seed packets on the same day.

Timing is Everything
Again, I can understand how business can boom in unexpected ways, but with seed orders, timing is everything. Sending packets of tomato/peppers seeds in May is not particularly helpful, nor is sending orders of fava beans a full year after they were ordered!

But enough ranting…
I did not intend this post to be a rant against Seeds of Change, but merely an example of some things besides the quality of the seed to consider when choosing a seed company. Truth be told, I have had excellent luck with germination from Seeds of Change, and have likewise felt that their selection and the quality of the varieties they carry are excellent. If they would change some of their packaging and shipping practices, I would be delighted to order from them once again.

Consider the source
Now that I’ve talked about everything but seed quality, let’s dive in. I prefer organic seed, although every packet of seeds I buy is not organic. I believe organic farming practices are more sustainable, and I also prefer that my family’s food supply come from the healthiest, most sustainable sources possible. If you buy seed one year (organic or not) and it comes to you looking funky, doesn’t germinate well, or doesn’t produce strong seedlings, you can safely move on to a different company the following year. But knowing a little bit about the environmental practices of your seed supplier–something that may not be obvious from using the seed you ordered from them–is also a good thing. If your seed is coming from a company owned by Monsanto, you’re supporting not only the seed, but everything else Monsanto does. That may not be what you’re after!

The advantages of ordering local
Here in Boulder County, we’re extremely lucky to have quite a few local seed providers. Buying from local providers not only keeps your dollars in the local economy, and supports small business, but also allows you to reap the benefits from producers who have grown plants in your specific climate.

That’s why this year I bought many of my seeds from Botanical Interests, who, by the way, sent all my seed in one appropriately-sized and compostable package within 10 days of my order. And why I will continue to buy the amazing and unusual varieties of seeds offered by my friends at Abbondanza. Beauty Beyond Belief is also another wonderful Colorado vendor who also has a nice selection of native wildflower and grass mixes.

When local isn’t an option…
Some of the medicinal & tea herbs that I like to grow are not carried by the local vendors, and I do like to expand my selection of heirloom tomatoes and peppers from time to time, so I do sometimes from non-local vendors. The Cook’s Garden, Horizon Herbs, and Irish Eye Garden Seed are ones myself or members of my family have had good luck with. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so lack of mention here should not be taken as a negative endorsement.

Seed Buying is Personal Choice
In the end, seed-buying is a personal choice. If you’re running behind and pick up a few packets of seed from the local big-box store, it’s not the end of the world (although browsing seeds is a great thing to do during dark January days). If you have a favorite local nursery who carries a brand I haven’t mentioned here, but can give share their own knowledge of the quality and suitability of the seed, go for it! Regardless, I hope this post gave you some food for thought as you make seed purchases this season.

6 thoughts on “Choosing a Seed Company

  1. I’m so glad you had some good luck with them! Give the squash a little more time–they like fairly warm soil to germinate and usually come up about 2 weeks after the last frost date (of course, I don’t know where you are in CA, so if you’re far enough south there is no frost to worry about).

    We often get flea beetles on our beans early in the season. Diatomaceous Earth is a very effective organic control, because if you can keep the critters off the beans until they get established (maybe 2 sets of true leaves), they’ll be able to survive the damage. Look for shiny beetles that hop like a flea and are about the size of the head of a pin. They’ll jump off the plant and into the ground when you walk up, so you have to look fast! Best of luck…

  2. Popping back in to update on my luck with Seed Savers Exchange seeds. Overall I’m very happy and feel that especially as a brand-new gardener the germination results I saw were good and any failures I attribute to my inexperience. Here’s the tally as best as I can report:

    Country Gentleman corn: 3 out of every 4 germination rate for seeds sown outdoors (75 out of 100, so many that I had to transplant some and they transplanted very well).

    5 varieties of tomatoes including organic and heirloom varieties: 5 of every 6, started indoors.

    Hot peppers: 2 of 6, not bad for hot peppers which I hear are hard to germinate.

    Black Beauty Zucchini – 1 of 6. I think this didn’t get enough sun.

    Table Queen Squash – slow to germinate when sowed outdoors but after 30 days, 11 of 18 had germinated and I’d say 6 of the ones that didn’t just didn’t get enough sun because one mound didn’t have any sprouts and the other two had 6 of 6 and 5 of 6 respectively.

    I had zero luck with starting herbs outdoors but from what I understand herbs are tough and require more heat than they got!

    For bush beans and pole beans I can’t really comment accurately because much of what managed to sprout got eaten by a mysterious creature. I am pleased though because at least 15 of 25 Hidatsa Shield beans sprouted and 10 have survived.

    Hope that helps! Happy gardening!

  3. Please do report back here and let us know how it goes. One of the things that’s tricky with SSE is that lots of different folks contribute seeds (even more than a company like Seeds of Change, who hires multiple farms to supply seed). I feel like there’s a possibility there for some off years like what we experienced last year, but your seed is likely coming from a totally different source. Crossing fingers for you!! I know lots of people who love SSE, so perhaps we just had bad luck!

  4. Oh dear, I’ve ordered all my seeds from them! I will be heartbroken if that’s the case for me too. I can only hope the California sun works some magic I guess.

  5. I like their philosophy too, Angela, but unfortunately, we had very low germination rates from the seeds we ordered from them last year. I didn’t mention them in my post because I wanted to give them another chance before deciding one way or another, but we tried melons, greens, pumpkins, and some other things from them last year and literally, across three-four families who tried them, got not one single sprout. I’m hoping it’s a fluke, because I’m definitely all for maintaining diversity and saving old varieties, which is what SSE is all about!!

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