With the onset of the pandemic, resulting shortages, and disruptions to warehousing, food, and transportation, seed companies saw a sharp and unexpected increase in demand. As more people turned to “Victory” gardens and looked to growing at least some of their own, seeds and vegetable transplants became treasured commodities. Seed companies simply could not meet the demands on both their product and their packing and shipping capacity.
In their 2021 seed catalogs, both Fedco Seed and Pinetree Seed mention having had to close their websites for a time last spring to fulfill existing orders. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has already had to close in January 2021 for the better part of a week so that they could keep up with orders—the combination of five-fold increase in seed orders coupled with staffing issues due to COVID necessitated the move. Already this year out-of-stocks and backorders are an issue, with many companies’ catalogs yet to even be delivered.
Early Signs Indicate a Need for Seed-Buying Care
It is apparent that this year a similar situation is arising, though seed companies seem better prepared for the demand and have put plans in place to fulfill orders as completely and in as timely a manner as possible. Still, the growth of new gardeners and growers, while certainly to be celebrated, is putting at least something of a strain on the industry. The levelling of capacity, supply and demand is likely to take a few years or more as the interest in this new gardening trend gets sorted for the long haul, and as seed suppliers work to increase their product supplies.
As those who grow know, this isn’t something that can be solved with a simple increase in numbers of widgets at the flip of a switch; increasing seed demand and redistributing to the new types of growers will happen over seasons, not days. Nevertheless, if we all do what we can to help spread the seed around, we can grow not only great gardens, but a great culture of self-sufficiency as people start to get their hands dirty once again.
Resilience grows with cooperation, especially in stressful times. – 2021 Fedco Seed Catalog
Planning seed order
How Can You Help Minimize Seed Shortages?
You might not be able to do all of the things listed here, but surely you can do some of them. If we all take a part we can prevent a larger shortage and, as Fedco Seed says, “a true seed crisis.”
Plan your garden and your growing. Plan before you order, so you’re ordering only what you’ll actually grow and use.
Take inventory of last year’s seeds. Few types, like onions, parsnips, and parsley, are not worth saving for a second or subsequent year but most seeds are. So, if you have leftover seeds that were stored well (cool, dark, and dry), take an inventory and use those up first. If you’re not sure how viable your seeds are, run a simple at-home germination test (this link also has a great list of seed viability ages).
Order early. Early ordering helps seed companies plan and restock and it helps you to be able to seek an alternative supply in enough time for seed starting and planting for those seeds that you can’t get all in one place.
Don’t overbuy. It’s obvious. Buy what you need. For many of us, a single seed packet is already more than enough!
Shop local first. Local retail supplies are already bought and paid for, but if they go unpurchased because everyone orders online, they become a waste while others suffer an outage.
Is there a seed bank near you? A seed swap library? Could you, should you, start one? Seed libraries or swaps are great places for free seed, and it helps to make good use of what’s already there without creating a higher demand.
Avoid overplanting. While it’s smart to overplant by a bit to accommodate for failures and poor germination, going overboard on the planting only wastes seed—seed that you can store nicely away for next year, saving you money and saving growers from short supplies.
Find a garden buddy. Having a buddy can make gardening more fun, but it’s also a great way to share knowledge (increase success), extra seeds, and seedlings.
Share seeds. Have more than you need? Pass it on. Or make a plan with your buddy wherein one of you buys one seed, one another, then swap your leftovers. Or split up the planting assignments — one of you grows the tomatoes, one grows broccoli, then divide up the transplants at planting time so you both get what you need.
Share extra transplants. Sharing any excess transplants that you’ve grown can help relieve the pressure on greenhouse growers and relieve the pressures of demand. Waste not.
Select dual-purpose varieties. With so many varieties and choices, it’s easy to want to grow one for every use you have in mind. But there are a lot of great varieties, heirlooms included, that can serve more than one purpose and reduce your plant and seed needs. For example, the Rutgers tomato is an excellent soup and sauce tomato that is also a great slicer. Italian peppers are a similar good dual-purpose choice for sweet, roasting, and cooking.
Try a new or unique variety. Take a chance on a less in-demand, lesser known variety. Especially in times of scarcity, your instinct will be to stick with what you know. That’s logical. But if you’re willing to change it up and try something new, you can make use of those less-popular seeds to ensure maximization of seed supplies.
Rethink how you plant and grow. Will a longer management and harvest get you the yield you need without subsequent and succession planting? Without the need for more seed? For example, rather than pull and start a second broccoli crop, after cutting the main head continue to grow the same plant and enjoy the side shoot harvests instead—right through to fall! Green beans, too, will keep going as long as they’re continually picked and have adequate water. Maybe an indeterminate tomato that will run as long as your season will yield better and longer than a determinate variety.
Select seeds to save. Think beyond this year’s shortages to the potential for years to come. Choose open pollinated or heirloom varieties of seeds that are easy to save (like tomatoes, lettuce, peas, beans, and peppers). Next year’s seed saving starts with this year’s seed purchases and that helps to prevent next year’s shortages.
We ask our customers, new and old, to carefully determine what you need, order accordingly, then leave some for the next in line. Seeds are not like gold: they don’t last when hoarded. — Fedco Seeds
Saving the Seeds This Year, Next Year, and Beyond
Many of these steps will immediately impact this year’s seed supply. Others will impact the supply in the next few years to come. The hope is that so many new home gardeners and growers will stay in the game. At least for the immediate future it’s sure that many will, and that really is a very good thing. Better demand and therefore access is good for all of us. But just as surely, shortages of quality seeds and plants will be the first thing to discourage new gardeners.
Let’s do our part to help everyone, large grower or small, garden, bed, or patio planter, new or seasoned, raise their own fresh food, sustainably, now and in future. Everyone deserves this basic human right and together we can do our part to make sure there continues to be enough to go around.
Mary Ellen Ward is a how-to author, New England homesteader, and family dairy farmer. Connect with her at The Homemade Homestead, Elderberry Tea Co. on her author website, her Amazon author page, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Read all of Mary Ellen’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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