Day 6: Favorite Seed Sources for Your Vegetable Garden

If you’ve decided to try starting your own vegetable seeds this year, you’ll find a lot of choices at hand—both for varieties available as well as places to buy them. More and more mass market and big box retailers sell seeds and seed-starting supplies, but if you want greater selection along with more unusual and heirloom varieties, then an independent garden center is the place to shop.

Even greater selection is offered by the many online and catalog seed merchants, and for myself I can think of almost nothing better than to spend an evening with a stack of seed catalogs—often more satisfying that perusing selections online. I tend to favor those from companies that specialize in heirloom or open-pollinated (OP) types, which means seed saved from the parent plant will grow new plants with the very same characteristics. That’s not the case with hybrid seeds.

While some company’s seed packs may appear to be considerably more expensive than others, it pays to determine exactly how many seeds are included in each pack. Ones that may seem pricier may actually be a better value.  Here are some catalogs that I like.

seed savers catalogMy favorite is that of Seed Savers Exchange, the organization that since 1975 has pioneered the movement to preserve and popularize heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. Their catalog is extensive, but is still manageable, and you won’t be overwhelmed by too many choices. One of the best things about Seed Savers is that their headquarters at Heritage Farm, located in Decorah, IA, is only a scenic three-hour drive from the Twin Cities.  There you can see what they do, tour their amazing test gardens, and shop for seeds and other garden-related items in their large, well-stocked store.

If you’re an heirloom tomato fanatic like me and it’s selection you want, than you must take a look at Gary Ibsen’s TomatoFest. The online-only catalog offers over 600—yes, that’s right—varieties of heirloom tomatoes. I can spend hours on this site. Top quality seeds and fast shipping, too.

Herb and lettuce gardeners will find a lot to love about Renee’s Garden. They offer a great selection of greens, lettuces, herbs, flowers, and heirloom vegetables in their online-only catalog, which features lovely illustrations of the selections rather than photos. Of particular note are the lettuce mix packs, which combine colorful and often unusual varieties that will make for a beautiful—and flavorful—salad cutting garden.

Territorial Seed Company’s thick, 175-page catalog is a fascinating read, with lots of detail and photos of their extensive seed offerings. It also includes a wide range of composting and growing equipment, specialty tools, and gardening supplies. In addition, Territorial sells supplies and equipment for canning and preserving what you grow.

BAKER_CREEK-onions

Images in the Baker Creek catalog are like artwork, such as this portrait of onions.

The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog is a work of art in its own right. Founded by a 17-year-old wunderkind in 1998, Baker Creek offers 1,450 varieties of heirloom vegetables, lavishly photographed with artful detail in their massive, 212-page large format catalog. Their descriptions are conversationally written, informative, and sometimes contain quirky and humorous details. I notice they’ve cut back on the aphorisms and quotes from historical figures they used to sprinkle throughout its pages, which is good.

 John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds is another illustrated catalog filled with less common selections of vegetables, greens, herbs, and flowers—both edible and ornamental. The back cover of their latest edition features four different Habitat Flower Garden seed mixes; each designed to attract either butterflies, hummingbirds, bumblebees, and songbirds.

Though I haven’t yet bought from them, I’ve heard good things about Victory Seeds and Botanical Interests; two more sources for heirloom and organic varieties. I plan to give them a try.

While you’re engaged in gathering seeds for this year’s garden, don’t overlook another important source: other gardeners. Some of the best seeds I’ve ever grown have come from friends who offered them to me with their recommendation, and I’m always happy to pass along my favorites to others who want to try something new. Swapping seeds and seedlings is a fun way to broaden your garden variety while nurturing gardening friendships.

—Tom McKusick

Follow Notes from Northern Gardener throughout January as we offer our series on 31 Days to a Great Northern Vegetable Garden. Tomorrow: Designing a Vegetable Garden.

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