Planting a Delicious New Year – Favorite Sources for Seeds

The wassail bowl is still standing by, awaiting New Year’s and Twelfth Night duty.  In spite of brutal temperatures, we’re still harvesting late fall greens (radicchio rules!) from their snug plastic tunnels. But the garden of 2010 has commenced; there are seed catalogs strewn all over the house, most with pens falling out of them. Vegetables dominate the lists, vegetables not seen on seed racks in stores, but there are also a few flowers

Tashkent marigold ( from Southern Exposure). The foliage has a sweet fragrance, the plants grow bushy with minimal pinching and the flowers absolutely glow.

Here’s my roundup of favorite sources:

But first, a few words about heirlooms and hybrids

Heirloom and modern open pollinated varieties (hereafter referred to as OP’s) have great advantages for gardeners and great value as vectors of genetic preservation. Heirlooms also have a reputation for tasting better than hybrids, which isn’t always true. Not because the heirlooms have slipped but because some hybrids have made great strides in the right direction.

Over the last few decades, the small farm, specialty and home garden markets have grown enough to attract the attention of breeders who know that flavor is essential for success. They don’t always hit the mark (see the footnote on Celebrity tomatoes here), but continuing to lump all hybrids with the ones developed for commercial virtues like durability and ease of machine harvest is no longer appropriate.

That said, heirlooms generally do remain the flavor kings. Most of the vegetables Bill and I grow are heirlooms or, if you count the OP’s and the OP’s we save ourselves, heirlooms-in-the-making.

We also grow hybrids, however, a couple of them yearly essentials, and now that “heirloom” is not only a food-fashion buzzword but also a sort of moral bottom line I think it’s probably time to point out that in developed countries with no isolated areas of genetic purity*, hybrids are not inherently a threat to anything.

Think what you will of multinational chemical companies like Monsanto and their effect on the seed business – as darkly as possible is fine with me – plant breeders like Rob Johnston, of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Jim Baggett, of Oregon State University, and Brent Loy, of  the University of New Hampshire, people who have spent lifetimes creating (occasionally stellar) hybrids are not evil Frankensteins; the technology they use is based on the same one nature uses. Plants hybridize all the time without any aid from human beings; they just don’t do it with us in mind. If you’ve ever eaten a volunteer squash that grew in the compost pile you know it wasn’t thinking of you.

'Juliet', a hybrid tomato we love. Bigger than a cherry, smaller than a plum. Early, prolific, disease-resistant, absolutely delicious fresh and ideal for drying.

The big knock on deliberately created F1 hybrids like ‘Juliet,’ offspring of two carefully bred parent lines that are usually more or less worthless by themselves, is that “you can’t save them.” True, if what you mean is that you can’t save the seeds from year one and have all of them produce roughly similar plants in year two.

But with a few exceptions like seedless watermelons, the seeds made by hybrid varieties are neither sterile nor deficient; you can plant them and they’ll grow just fine. All the original genetic material is still in there, just not in the same arrangement and not the same from seed to seed. The seeds you save from  F1 hybrids produce an assortment of plants, only a few worth saving.

If the parent lines of the F1 were similar, the assortment won’t be huge. By repeatedly selecting the best plants, then saving and planting their seeds, you might be able to get an OP substitute for the hybrid in as little as 6 to 10 generations.

On the other hand, if the parent lines of the F1 were not similar, the assortment will be staggering. Following generations will present so many unique plants to select from you’d have to have major financial resources and considerable skill to sort out a candidate for preservation.

But either way, it could be done – at least in theory. In practice, if you want the characteristics offered by the hybrid seed, you buy the hybrid seed each time you need more. Just the same way most of us buy flour, sugar and shoes.

As for the argument that all seed varieties, including those developed by professional breeders, should be common property that anybody can sell, we notice that most of those making this case have no trouble copywriting the words they use to make it.

Obviously (or maybe not so obviously but that’s a rant for another day) seeds that have been genetically engineered are another story. For those, I’m in full agreement with the precautionary principle and so are the seed sellers on this list, all of whom have officially taken the Safe Seed Pledge .

* Completely apart from cross-pollination problems, every hybrid seed planted means one less heirloom seed in the ground. This is a particular threat to diversity  in places where the native populations of whatever plant are various, numerous and little known, while the number of farmers who know how to plant them is small and getting smaller. Corn in Central America is perhaps the best known example.

OK, here they are, in alphabetical order:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Every year the ever-larger, ever more glossy catalog sets new standards for garden porn. Baker Creek offers an enormous array of vegetable varieties (and vegetables) many of them in my experience deservedly obscure. Much of this exotica is in short supply; order early if you want something truly unusual. It doesn’t hurt to notice that the catalog is innocent of cultural information and says essentially nothing about less glamorous parts of the seed business like trial fields and testing procedures.  Fun, though, and most of what I’ve gotten from them has been fine.

Fedco Seeds. “Very unique” is a locution that has always given me acute pain, but if it were possible for something to be even more only one than only one, Maine’s northern-grower-centric Fedco cooperative would certainly be it. The idiosyncratic catalog, written by founding cooperator CR Lawn, is wonderful bedside reading even if you don’t order anything. But he’s very persuasive; you almost surely will and then you’ll be glad you did.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds. (Full disclosure: founder and part owner Rob Johnston is a personal friend.) Johnny’s newly redesigned website has a completely retail front page, so it’s no longer instantly clear that small and mid-sized commercial growers are major Johnny’s customers and this outfit isn’t fooling around. Trialing is extensive; there’s a major breeding program;  many of the seeds are grown by Johnny’s or on contract for them and tech support is part of the package even when the package only weighs a couple of grams.

Pinetree Garden Seeds. What the newsprint catalog lacks in frills it makes up for in wide selection at low prices. This has long been the place to shop if you just want to try a little of something or find yourself always and forever throwing out ancient lettuce seed. The alphabetical listing in front is supplemented by small appendices of “Foreign Vegetables:” Asian, Continental – the European continent but not France or Italy which get their own couple of pages each – Latin American, etc.), an arrangement about which you may draw your own conclusions.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is located in Virginia and targeted to the mid-Atlantic and upper and mid South. Seed saving is a central theme and there is considerable  emphasis on heirlooms developed and preserved by home gardeners who have to contend with substantial heat and humidity. The well written catalog makes each variety come to life and the descriptions are honest about merits and liabilities.

Territorial Seed Company.  Large selection, detailed descriptions and useful growing information from a company firmly located in the Mountain West. Territorial also sells started seedlings for which I can’t vouch, never having ordered any.

Southwesterners! –There’s plenty for you in these catalogs, but there’s even more – and even better, from the locally adapted point of view – at Native Seeds SEARCH (Southwestern Endangered Species Resource Clearing House).

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12 Comments »

  • Susan Scheid Said,

    Happy New Year! Today, with the near white-out outside, is certainly a good day to peruse the seed catalogs, so thank you for the tips. This is a bit off the point, but I have been thinking of your comment re stopping paper delivery of the Times, as well–I just stopped mine yesterday and have been sitting here cozily reading on my new kindle. Good thing, as there would have been no Sunday Times delivery today, eh?

    Stay warm and dry, and enjoy picking out your seeds!

  • Leslie Said,

    happy new year – and new seeds to you too, Sue.

    For those who might be wondering what I said about the Times, nothing very original. All I said was that they tended to pile up and bundling them for recycling came to feel like more of a pain than just not cutting he trees in the first place.

  • Julia Said,

    I just found your site–what a treasure trove! This list is a great way to start the year. I’m also knee deep in catalog dreamland (and snow) which is really such a satisfying place to be (mostly because it’s not reality and makes the long winter go by). Many thanks and happy new year!

  • Leslie, your blog is JUST WONDERFUL–*and* you’re a good writer! You shared the link on Dozier’s FB page–do you mind if I post a link to your blog on my FB? I have a number of gardening friends.
    I’ll follow this blog with interest and pleasure!

    • Leslie Said,

      welcome Melinda
      and thanks so much for the warm words — of course I’d be delighted to have you post a link, and I’ll be looking forward to your visits. Please don’t be shy about asking questions or requesting posts; it’s not exactly fb, but it is a community, and the more active members the merrier. Bill’s recent guest-post on coyotes is turning out to be a great example of what I mean!

  • Having just looked at your self-description, I’m now embarrassed I said you’re a good writer!! No wonder!!! It’s just that so many bloggers are not good writers, even if they work with good content.
    Forgive my presumption!!!!

    No presumption about it, Melinda. “Professional” is no guarantee of “good,” so compliments are always welcome

  • I just read Bill’s coyote post prior to writing my last comment–it’s absolutely fascinating! As you say, “Who knew?”

  • Anne Said,

    Territorial has been a main supplier of seeds for me for many years. Even though I work in a nursery, I am always on the look out for more and unusual seeds; plus I love their layout. I highly recommend their seeds especially for the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast in general. They carry so much that there is something for everyone no matter where you live in the country.

  • Lorna Sass Said,

    Oh, so many seeds and so little land…Will live vicariously at the moment and enjoy the gorgeous pictures of your harvest.

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