Where to buy Non-GMO & Organic Seeds, Bulbs, Crowns, Bare root plants, Seedlings… All that. These are the trusted sources we’ve used the past few years at Tyrant Farms.
Looking through catalogues and putting little tags next to all the things we want to grow the second the weather starts showing signs of spring is one of our favorite things to do mid-winter when cabin fever is driving us all bananas — or mid-summer when it’s 110 degrees outside and all we can do is sit inside and plan our fall/winter garden that we intend to plant when the temps cool off and become more fall-like. As such, it’s only natural that this was one of the first posts I sat down to write when we first started planning the content of the blog back in June (June 11, 2012 to be precise, as reflected on the “save” records). You read that correctly — I’ve been writing this blog post for almost 3 months now. On and off. Don’t let that set your expectations too high… So, why exactly did it take so long? Well, as I started making our seed resource lists & re-checking different companies safe-seed pledges and organic certifications I began to get… o-ver-whelmed. There are a handful of people who take our recommendations seriously and I don’t want to let them — or anyone else — down. If we’re going to endorse an organization, it’s because it’s a company we’ve vetted, has been used by us or a few of the fellow gardeners we absolutely trust, and we have concluded that the seeds/products they are offering are up-to-snuff (read: transparency, non-GMO & Organic Seeds, great to work with from a customer service standpoint, etc.).
Where I started to get completely overwhelmed was when I realized: 1) that not all the seed companies we use have signed the safe seed pledge (here’s a list of organizations that have)– something I trust to be a good indicator of the quality and diversity of seed offered; and 2) I know very little about what all these terms mean relative to each other. For instance, if it’s Organic, could it still be a GMO? So, I’m going to share a little bit about what I’ve learned in an effort to make this less confusing for those of us who aren’t scientists.
- Heirloom: Heirlooms represent our garden heritage. They are grown from seeds that have been saved, grown, and passed down for a number of years (the jury is out on “how old” a seed line must be, although there is some consensus on the seed having been around before 1941). To be capable of being saved, an heirloom must be open-pollinated or capable of being propagated by root division or bulb. If you want to grow a piece of history, this is the way you do it. If you’re really serious about growing heirlooms for the purpose of preservation, check out the Seed Savers Garden Seed Inventory 6th Edition, which is a comprehensive inventory of 274 U.S. and Canadian mailorder seed catalogs with varietal descriptions and ordering information for 8,494 standard (non-hybrid) vegetables. To read more about the specifics of what an heirloom is, here’s a great wikipedia article on the topic. It is important to note that if you want to have optimal success with any seed, especially one that isn’t hybridized for specific resistances such as an heirloom, try to find ones that have been grown and passed down in your area/agricultural zone and they will likely show a natural resistance/ability to tolerate your climate, local soil conditions, local pests and diseases…
- Open Pollinated: Plants that are capable of producing seeds that will produce seedlings identical to the parent. This is the seed you can save, regrow, and have the same fantastic plant you had the year prior. As I mentioned before, all heirlooms have to be open-pollinated.
- Hybrid: The result of either a natural or deliberate cross between two different parent plants in an effort to create offspring that display the best (or ideal for the situation) traits of the parent. This is the seed you always hear not to save. If you do, it will yield a variety grab-bag of seedlings that exhibit the parent plant’s traits, none of which will be identical to the fruit from which you saved the seed. For instance, one year we saved seed from a yummy pepper that I picked out of a community garden. I don’t remember the variety. We only grew out a few of the seeds (maybe five out of 200) b/c we just don’t have the room to grow 200 seeds in the hope that one will be amazing. Of the five, the one pepper that made it was… well, all the “genetic trash” of the parent plant — the fruit was thin walled with little flavor, and the plant itself was sorta weak and small. However, had we grown out all 200 and found one amazing pepper, we could have continued to grow out that seed and create a new line of pepper that thrived in our soil. There’s so much more that I could blab on about hybridizing plants & creating new lines; far more than anyone wants to read in this post, so I’ll be doing another post on this subject later. One Last Quick Note: I’ve read numbers as high as 90% of our heirlooms started out as either natural or deliberate crosses (hybrids) that eventually became stabilized. A hybrid can be stabilized (and therefore become open-pollinated) after a number of successive offspring reliably produces an identical plant to the original hybrid (called the F1). A hybrid is not and heirloom or open-pollinated.
- GMO: The term ‘GMO’ is an acronym for a Genetically Modified Organism. A GMO is any plant, animal or microorganism who has had it’s genes altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering. For example, Bt Corn is corn that has had Bt bacteria spliced into its genes reportedly making it resistant to certain pests like corn borers. In this case, Bt would never find its way into a corn kernel, however there are genetic modifications that simply speed up what could happen as a result of natural hybridization. Hybrids are not GMOs. We try to stay away from GMOs in our veggie crops, which in the world of home horticulture (vs. big agriculture) isn’t horribly difficult. My understanding is that the only veggie plants we need to be careful about are sweet corn, melons, & squash. If you’re planting grains, sugar beets or other crops used for the by-products they produce (ie. feed or ethanol) and are concerned about this issue, then you may want to do more research. If you stick to the heirloom varieties, you can be assured they’re not GMO.
- Safe Seed Pledge: “The Safe Seed Pledge was created in 1999 by High Mowing Organic Seeds, guiding a coalition of 9 other seed companies as a statement about the signers’ stance on genetic engineering as well as a resource for consumers wishing to find sources of GE-free seeds. Over 70 companies have signed the pledge, ranging from large seed companies to family-owned businesses such as ours. […] We feel that the regulatory framework for the introduction of genetically modified crop varieties is flawed, and that GMO seeds themselves present a threat to plants’ genetic diversity through their ability to pollinate non-GMO plants.” ~ High Mowing Seeds In short: The reasons we choose to, where possible, buy from companies that carry that pledge is because we wish to support agricultural processes that lead to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems, and ultimately people and communities.
- Organic: While we all know what organic foods are, I wasn’t sure what it meant with respect to the regulation of seed, buying seed, and how it effects home gardners. Here’s a tiny chunk of what the NOP regulations state: “The NOP requires organic farmers to plant organic seed unless it is not commercially available. […] Non-treated, non-GMO conventional seed is allowed when equivalent organically produced varieties are not available.” ~ Source. Heirloom seeds are not always organic, just as an organic seed isn’t always an heirloom. Some of the seeds we buy do not carry an organic certification (especially from smaller growers where it’s too expensive to get the NOP cert. or if they’re Canadian/non-US) and in those cases, it just comes down to trusting the companies you purchase seed from by reading their environmental statements, their ‘About Us’ sections (are they a smaller 5-man show or a large 200+ organization), looking at the associated products the sell (if they sell round-up, it’s a good indication it’s not a concern of theirs), and are they cultivating some/all of the seed they sell themselves?
- Biodynamic: I know so little about this, I just decided to cheat and copy and paste from Wikipedia. When I have more time, I’ll do more research, watch some YouTube videos, and actually write more about what this is. For now, my apologies. Broadly, it is a method of organic farming that emphasizes the holistic development and interrelationships of the soil, plants and animals as a self-sustaining system. One of the first modern ecological farming systems it emphasizes a sustainable approach to agriculture. Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include an emphasis on integrating farm animals, the cultivation of crops, and the care of the land; the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays; an emphasis from its beginnings on local production and distribution systems using local breeds and varieties; and the use of an astronomical sowing and planting calendar. There are independent certification agencies for biodynamic products; most of these agencies are members of the international biodynamics standards group Demeter International. ~ wikipedia
Some of Our Favorite Seed Companies
Where possible we try to only buy Non-GMO & Organic seedNote: Just in case it’s important to you, companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge have SSP noted next to their name.
Vegetables – Heirlooms & Organic Seed
- Baker Creek SSP - These guys have become one of our favorite companies to procure seed from. Much of our summer seed and winter seed this past year (2012) came from them. Their catalogue is just gorgeous; it’s really more like a magazine. We can’t wait for this year’s catalogue to arrive. They offer tons of heirlooms from all over the world — in some cases, varieties that you can’t find anywhere else. Trust me: Order a catalogue.
- Peaceful Valley SSP - The other main seed resource we used this year (2012). While Baker has just seed and a few supplies, these guys are a one-stop shop for seeds (herb, flower, cover crop…), supplies, bulbs, bare-root trees, etc. This is another catalogue that is a resource in and of itself, with helpful graphs and grids to help you pick the best solution (be it fertilizers, wildflowers, cover crop, and so much more).
- Seeds Savers Exchange SSP - A great collection of heirlooms prized by seed savers all over. Another beautiful catalogue.
- Territorial Seed Company SSP - Awesome catalogue — We’ve primarily bought brassicas and greens for the fall and cucurbits (squash, melons, cukes…) for the summer from them. Wide selection, awesome catalogue.
- Abundant Life SSP - A sister company to Territorial Seed that deals primarily in organic seed. They also offer a selection of certified biodynamic seed.
- High Mowing SSP - The originators of the Safe Seed Pledge who offer almost exclusively Organic seed. We’ve never ordered from them, but they come highly recommended from gardeners we trust. We do intend to try them when we order for our 2013 summer garden.
- Seeds of Change SSP – The other company we’ve never ordered from, have heard nothing but wonderful things about & intend to give them a try this coming spring/summer.
- Johnny’s Select Seed SSP - We’ve primarily used them for greens, edible flowers, herbs, and root veggies. They have a very extensive offering of all types of seed (conventional and organic), but can be a bit more expensive for the home gardener. Great resource if you’re buying in bulk. They also have a wonderful selection of products and supplies.
Vegetables – Specific or Specialty Seed
- Tomato Growers (Non-GMO commitment)- We bought many of our eggplants and peppers from these guys in 2011 (and replanted in 2012) and again in 2013. Amazing variety (probably the best we’ve seen anywhere); many hybrids (which can be good if you have disease-prone soil) and they don’t seem to label organic or address if their seed is cultivated organically, but they do state that none of their seed is chemically treated with pesticides or fungicides.
- Solana Seeds - A seed company out of Quebec with an amazing variety of heirloom and rare veggies. Over 200 varieties of tomato; 95% of our tomatoes in 2011 & 2012 came from Solana.
- Trade Winds Fruits – A great selection of hard-to-find seeds. We bought our horned melons from these guys when Baker Creek ran out. I’ve also bought some pitcher plant seeds and spices.
- Horizon Herbs - Amazing selection of hard to find medicinal and culinary herbs; they also sell some veggie seeds and live plants. You can also order Horizon through Peaceful Valley, which we have done to bundle the shipping. I don’t think PV carries the full inventory of Horizon, so make sure you check both places if you’re looking for something special.
- Beautanicals / Beautanicals New Site - Another fantastic resource for medicinal herbs. All seed is organically grown, bio-dynamically tended, garden hardened and open pollinated. They grow the plants, harvest the seed, clean and winnow, and pack your order ourselves. Australian, so shipping is a bit higher, but I’ve found some really rare/not US approved things.
Garlic, Alliums & Potatoes Bulbs/Tubers
- Peaceful Valley SSP - We ordered: Garlic bulbs (2011 & 2012) // Short-day Onions (2012) – fantastic selection of conventional and organic garlic and a pretty nice selection of live onion plants.
- Territorial Seed Company SSP - We ordered: Garlic bulbs (2010) // Shallot bulbs (2011) – very wide selection of both garlic and shallots. I prefer them for shallots and PV for garlic.
- Baker Creek SSP - We ordered: Onion seed.
- The Potato Garden SSP - Great selection of potatoes for all seasons (early/main/late) and fingerlings.
Trees & Perennials
- Peaceful Valley - I know I’ve mentioned them 3 times now, but we use them for a lot of things. They have tons of bare root trees, berry bushes and seasonal things like rhubarb, horseradish, artichokes, and asparagus.
- Miller Nurseries - Horseradish & Asparagus (2012). Fantastic selection.
- One Green World – Another catalogue with a fantastic selection. They tend to have some more rare things too. We’re intending to get some bare root plants from here when it’s cool enough to ship.
- Raintree Nursery – Great selection with unusual items. Another one we have some items earmarked in.
- Farmtek Growers Supply - Great selection with fantastic prices. If I needs lots of something (seed tray, row cover…) I usually go with them b/c of their close to wholesale pricing.
- Peaceful Valley - Typically I’ll only use them for fertilizer or tools.
- Johnny’s Select Seed - Primarily tools.
I know I’m leaving some stuff off, so I’ll continue to update this list. It’s a work in progress.