Finding Great Garden Seeds

Follow this guide for finding great garden seeds.

| April/May 2005

Twenty years ago, it was virtually impossible to buy organically grown seeds. Among the more readily available seeds, many varieties were treated with toxic fungicides that commercial growers — and most gardeners — thought were essential to success. But today we know better, and so does a new generation of seed sellers. Companies such as High Mowing Seeds and Seeds of Change offer all organically grown seeds, and other companies, such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, specialize in nonhybrid heirloom varieties, which often excel in flavor and nutrition. Even the largest and oldest seed companies, such as Burpee, Park, Harris and Ferry-Morse, are adding more organic seeds and heirloom varieties to their offerings. This trend also extends to the retail racks of Botanical Interests and other companies that sell seeds in stores.

We surveyed the current garden seed catalogs and chose 20 companies for the 2005 Sustainable Seeds Honor Roll. You’ll find a wealth of exciting varieties and great advice in these catalogs, and most of them are free for the asking. Here’s a closer look at three of those companies in Maine, New Mexico and Missouri. Taken together, they tell an interesting story of where the seed industry has been, how far it has come and where the future of garden seeds is going.

Veteran’s View

The current trend toward sustainable seeds comes as no surprise to Rob Johnston Jr., founder and chairman of the 32-year-old Johnny’s Selected Seeds. From its first 16-page seed list, Johnny’s has grown into a thriving company that now offers 150-page color catalogs and employs more than 80 people on 40 certified organic acres in central Maine.

“There’s always potential in any business for new enthusiasm, and specifically in the seed business,” Johnston says. Early on, working on a tight budget, Johnston opted to channel his enthusiasm into breeding squash and pumpkins — high-nutrition niche crops. This year’s retail catalog lists eight pumpkin varieties developed by the Johnny’s team, 13 squash varieties — including ‘Bonbon’ buttercup, a 2005 All-America Selections (AAS) winner — and ‘Diva’ cucumber (AAS 2002). The latter owes its creation to breeding work done by Johnston’s wife, Janika Eckert. Over the years, Johnny’s has accumulated an impressive list of AAS winners, including bright-orange ‘Sunshine’ winter squash; beautiful, multicolored ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard; and ‘Baby Bear’ pumpkin with thick, pie-worthy flesh and roastable seeds.

Johnston opened his seed business after working at a natural foods co-op and as a market gardener. His company’s listings still reflect that market gardening background — he includes herbs, green manure crops, ornamental grasses and long-stemmed flower varieties sought by cut-flower growers.

His special interest in grains shows, too. “I’ve had my own flour mill for 25 years,” Johnston says. One of his favorite grains is ‘Polk’ spring wheat — a high-gluten variety that makes great pancakes and wonderfully crusty bread — which is also available through the catalog.

Mdrx Office
10/1/2009 11:18:03 AM

My favorite garden seed company is Urban Farmer Seeds. They recycled magazines and turn them into earth friendly seed packets. They offer a great selection of seeds. Check them out!

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