So you say you’re tired of planting one of the only two varieties of bean that your local Super Store sells (Not so super now are they?). Or you saw a story in the garden section of the newspaper about a gorgeous new variety of petunia that you really want in your garden, but they don’t have it anywhere in your area. Or maybe you’re like I was a few years ago, you heard about heirloom tomatoes and wanted to try them out, only to have the people at your garden center look at you like you were some kind of alien. Growing your garden from seed can be a wonderful and enriching experience. Finding those seeds locally, however, can be an entirely different story.
There are thousands of mail order and online seed companies out there. It’s a world of infinite variety and the right company can become a valuable resource in your pursuit of a better garden. However, like any other business niche on the internet, for every one great seed company out there, there are three who just want your money. Companies who really don’t care whether you are able to grow a single plant from their seeds or not. Companies that know more about marketing than they do about horticulture. Buying from a disreputable company can cost you money and worse, waste valuable growing time in your garden.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A SEED COMPANY
The greater variety of seed a company has, the easier it is to find all your seeds in one place. The fewer sites you have to buy from, the more you’re spending on seeds instead of shipping and handling charges.
Personally, I want my seed when I want it, not when a company gets enough orders to head to the post office. And I don’t want it when they deem it’s safe for my area. You are my seed company, not my mother. If I’m smart enough to start plants from seed, I think it’s safe to say I know when my last frost is.
Reasonable Shipping Fees
I don’t mind paying for the expense of shipping my seeds. I do mind having my shipping and handling fees used as an extra revenue source
Does the company have gardening information resources easily available? Do they
serve a non-profit purpose that furthers gardening in general?
Not a Buyer or Subsidiary of a Horticultural Conglomerate
I can hear the “Big M” apologists already, “Just because a company is owned by or does business with one of the big horticultural mulinationals doesn’t mean they are selling genetically modified seed.” And you know what? They’re absolutely right…for now. But when you choose to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, in the end, the devil will have his due. Monsanto et. al. will find a way to legitimize GMOs for retail use, and when they do it will be game over for backyard gardening as we know it. So best to show them right now that their frankenfood is not welcome, before they get a stranglehold on all of gardening.
High Germination Rates
Even the nicest, fastest shipping and most environmentally responsible seed company in the world isn’t helping anyone if half the seeds they sell don’t even germinate.
Ultimately though, what I am looking for when I buy from a seed company are businesses that try to follow the now famous business model mantra of Google “Don’t be Evil”. While the jury is out on whether Google is presently accomplishing that feat (Refusing to be a search-censoring toady for the Chinese government is a start) there are seed companies large and small, mostly small, that are doing business the right way and deserve your business. Here are five of my favorites:
Seed Savers Exchange
Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit, member supported organization started in 1975 by Diane Ott-Wheatly and Kent Wheatly as a way to preserve America’s heirloom seed heritage. It is the mother ship of heirloom seed preservation in the U.S. or as they put it on their website:
Seed Savers Exchange is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. We permanently maintain more than 25,000 endangered vegetable varieties, most having been brought to North America by members’ ancestors who immigrated from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and other parts of the world
Beside the good feeling I get supporting an organization that is doing important work toward sustaining the gardening world, I also like that I’m doing business with a non-profit. If there’s no profit to be had, you never have to deal with a business that puts those profits ahead of helping you. Ultimately thought, I go with Seed Savers because of the reasonable pricing of their organic seeds.
What first caught my eye about Botanical Interests was the packaging. A stunningly beautiful painting of the plant adorns the tiny little seed packet. But before you think that Botanical Interests is just a pretty face, look again. Not only is there the regular seed info on the back of the packet, but upon opening the seed you find a whole host of helpful info printed on the inside of the packaging. Looks and a brain? Hey Botanical Interests, do you sell Spouses?
On the customer service side, they are about the fastest shipper of the five companies I deal with. I put in my order at their Colorado headquarters on a Monday and almost always get my seeds here in Indiana by that Thursday. Also, the germination rates of their seeds are very high. In particular, I like their combo packs. They seem to have a good understanding in the theming (is that a word?) of their multi-variety packs. You don’t just get a thrown together amalgam of their unsold seed from the previous year.
For an indepth look at the business side of Botanical Interests check out the video below:
Diane’s Flower Seeds
This was definitely a case where I’m glad I didn’t judge a company by it’s name. I happened upon Diane’s website, oddly enough, while searching for a company that had all the heirloom tomato varieties I wanted but didn’t charge an arm and a leg. I found sites with every variety you could think of, but they had insanely high prices. I found sites with reasonable prices, but no selection. Finally, in my desperation, I happened across Diane Linsley’s site and found every tomato variety I was looking for at a reasonable price.
I also found out something else. Diane can flat out write! The self written articles on her site never cease to amaze me in their ability to relate gardening to everyday life. The personal revelations she shares about herself and her family are deeply moving and always leave me saying to myself “Why doesn’t this woman have a book out, or a wildly popular blog or a regular newspaper column?” Well, for now, I feel enriched by what she is able to share with us. If she ever finds the time to write a book, needless to say, I’ll be first in line to buy it.
As for her customer service aspects, the packaging is pretty basic. The seeds come wrapped in wax paper inside little zip-lock baggies. However, the shipping is prompt and her seeds have had the highest germination rate for me of all the companies I deal with.
Ed Hume Seeds
A gardening legend, Ed Hume has been helping people garden on his weekly TV show for longer than I have been alive, and as I’m no spring chicken, that’s saying something. When I found out he sold seeds online, I knew that with that many years of gardening know-how under his belt, and all the accolades from his peers, I needed to give his seed company a try. I’m glad I did.
Ed Hume does a few seeds and does them well. He focuses on short season varieties of plants and flowers. What really stands out about his site for me though, is the exhaustive library of his writings on individual plants. You want to know about Passion Flowers? He’s got an article on that. Need to know about Scarlet Runner Bean care? He’s got one for that too. Who said longevity doesn’t have its upside?
While the website itself is a bit old school (I felt like I had traveled back to the 90’s), the prices on most of his seeds are hard to beat. On the customer service end, the shipping price and delivery speed are both excellent.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
We now go from the oldest of the seed company owners on my list to the youngest. Jere Gettle, Baker Creek’s 29 year old founder is a prime example of how a true passion for your work can breed success. This enthusiastic, ball of energy of a man, in the twelve years since he started Baker Creek Seed has only: started a seed company, grown that seed company from a few hundred customers to hundreds of thousands, opened on-site seed stores in Missouri and California, created a yearly garden festival at his pioneer village, and oh yeah, created a pioneer village, opened an Asian restaurant, launched an heirloom magazine and still finds time to travel the world looking for new and interesting heirloom seeds.
And you gotta love a guy who can garden in a hawiian shirt! See for yourself:
So all that running around effects the seed catalog business right? Not in the least. My seeds are always shipped promptly, are reasonably priced and germinate well.
So that’s my big five seed companies that do it right. Businesses that love gardening first and money second. Welllll…maybe they love both gardening and money equally (People gotta make a living, after all). Whatever their motivation, these companies, in my experience, give you the best chance at excellent germination, the fastest shipping and a way to garden without feeling like you are growing “Frankenfood”.
Have favorites not on my list? Feel free to shout ‘em out in the comment area. I know these are not the only sites doing right by their customers and I’m anxious to hear your personal favorites.
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