Many gardeners have a springtime tradition of taking a trip to the garden center and coming home with a car or truck full of little veggie seedlings. I also enjoy perusing the aisles at my local big box garden center, but there are some downsides to sourcing your plants this way.
The corporate garden centers typically source their plants from greenhouses hundreds of miles away from your location. These same greenhouses are the source of seedlings for entire regions, so the varieties they sell are often not well-suited to your local area. Occasionally these seedlings will be infected with plant diseases that you could unknowingly introduce to your garden.
Small, locally-owned garden centers typically have better quality seedlings and better varieties for your area, but many people don’t live near a good garden center like this. If you’re one of those people without a good local garden center or you just want to grow unique varieties in your garden, your best option is to order seeds online and grow your seedlings yourself.
Although it might seem intimidating at first, starting your own seeds at home is pretty simple, and the benefits are enormous. There are a number of online seed companies that specialize in wonderful heirloom varieties and you can select seeds that are specifically bred for your type of growing environment. With all of those options to choose from, it helps to know a little bit of seed industry jargon so you can make the best selection for your garden.
One of the first things you’ll see on seed packets and online descriptions are the words “Open Pollinated (OP)” or “Hybrid (F1)”. Open pollinated seeds are traditionally bred by pollinating plants using pollen from the same variety. These are the seeds that you’d want to order if you plan on saving seeds for future use because they’ll continue to produce the same variety every year you grow them. Hybrid seeds are varieties that are made by crossing two or more existing varieties to make more uniform crops and sometimes more productive crops. These varieties can be excellent in the garden, but if you save seeds from one year’s crop and grow them again, they’ll be completely different from the original crop.
Most seed companies will note the “days to maturity” of each variety which is critical when selecting which plants to grow. Days to maturity is an estimate for the number of growing days that it takes the plant to reach a harvestable size or produce ripe fruit. If you live in a growing zone with a 100-day growing season, but try to grow a pumpkin variety that has 110 days to maturity, you likely won’t have enough time to harvest a crop. Look around at the other varieties and select one with fewer than 100 days and you’ll save yourself some heartache.
Certain crops can grow as either a bush or a vine, and that will also be specified in the variety description as the plant’s “growth habit.” If you are looking to grow a Three Sisters Garden with vining beans crawling all over your tall corn stalks, make sure you select a vining bean variety rather than a bush bean which will simply grow to two feet tall and then begin to produce a crop at the corn’s feet. This same terminology is used to describe squash, peas, and other crops that grow as either a vine or a bush.
Other terms you should keep an eye out for are “direct seed” and “transplant.” Certain crops, especially those with tap roots, do not like to be disturbed when growing, so they need to be planted right where they will grow, which is referred to as direct seeding. Transplanting, on the other hand, is when you start a seed in a container with potting soil to give it a head start before planting it in the garden.
Finally, when buying onion seeds you’ll want to look out for the day length. Onions are categorized as, “short day,” “intermediate day,” or “long day.” Onions focus on leaf and root growth until the number of sunlight hours reaches their preferred length and then they begin focusing their energy on bulbing out and maturing. Short day onions begin bulbing out when the days are about 10 to 12 hours long, which means that they will try to bulb out almost immediately if they’re planted in a northern spring where the days are already 12 hours long in March. This results in tiny onion bulbs. As a rule of thumb if you live south of the Carolinas, you should grow short day onions and if you live north of Virginia, you should grow long day onions. If you live between the Carolinas and Virginia, intermediate day onions will be your best bet.
Now that you’re equipped with some seed jargon knowledge and ready to navigate the world of seed catalogs there are a few high-quality seed providers that I’d like to endorse. High Mowing Seeds is an excellent source for reliable varieties of high-quality organic vegetables. When my wife Silvan and I ran a vegetable CSA this is where we sourced almost all of our seeds.
For indigenous heirlooms like corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins, I typically source our seeds from the Alliance of Native Seedkeepers. This company specifically focuses on propagating heirloom seeds with important cultural value to the indigenous peoples of North America. Many of these varieties have been reliably feeding people here for thousands of years and continue to do so to this day. For grains like wheat, oats, and rice, I’ve found Fedco Seeds to be the best source.
There are a number of other excellent seed companies to choose from, so take a look around and I’m sure you’ll find something that suits your needs. Also keep an eye out for events in your community like seed swaps and farmers' markets for hyper-local seed sourcing. Once you ditch the big box store seedlings and start sourcing high-quality varieties, your garden will never be the same.
Looking for more resources on planting a garden this spring? Check out these helpful articles: How to Prepare Your Garden Beds for Spring, How to Choose the Best Spot for a Vegetable Garden, and How to Sow Seeds in the Winter. And be sure to watch these videos on How to Start Garden and How to Plan a Garden.