Is there anything more cheering on a snowy January day than browsing through seed catalogs or doing a little online dreaming about what you’ll plant when spring finally comes?
In just a few weeks, it will be time to start some slower-germinating seeds indoors. Seeds of other faster-germinating flowers and vegetables should be started indoors in mid-March. And still others do best directly sown right into the soil, usually in May.
Buy your seed from the right source and you’re more likely to have success in turning those tiny — and sometimes pricey — nuggets into big, beautiful, productive plants.
What makes a retailer a good place to buy seed? All the same hallmarks of any other quality business — good selection, fair prices and the product does what it’s supposed to do (germinate well and produce strong plants) with excellent customer service. Good seed suppliers also provide useful, accurate how-to information without the hype and with a solid understanding of gardening in our region.
Best go-to seed source: Your local garden center
I am not fan of seeds sold in the big box stores. I like shopping at these retailing behemoths for many things, but seeds are not one of them.
Instead, check out small, locally owned garden centers. Their seed selection is usually reliable and is vetted so that they offer only those plants that will do well our area. Staff also is likely to be able to offer advice about start seed and to be able to recommend certain seeds and seed-starting supplies.
When you buy local rather than online, you also have the advantage of being able to buy just one or two packets or to pop out to the garden center and pick up a few more any time during the season without having to purchase minimum orders or pay shipping.
Best all-around seed company: Park Seed
I’ve been ordering from them for 35 years and have yet to be disappointed. Park sells quality seed that is well-packaged and protected. They have an excellent selection of seeds, including all the newest seeds, like the All-America Selections Winners, as well as a number of longtime favorites.
While I’m a Park (parkseed.com) gal, I have many gardening friends who like Burpee Seed (www.burpee.com) for all the same reasons. Johnny’s Seeds (johnnyseeds.com) also has similarly wide selections, plus hundreds of their offerings are certified organic.
Cheapest seed source: Your garden
Saving seeds from things grown in your garden or a friend’s garden is easy. Just allow the fruit or flower to ripen or go to seed, and then collect the seeds. Allow them to dry on paper towels for several days in a cool, dry spot. Then store in jars or plastic bags, preferably in the refrigerator, until planting time next year.
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Important note: If the plant is an F1 hybrid (a plant that is a first-generation plant from two different parents) it will not grow true from seed. So if you purchase seed for beautiful rich red, tall F1 hybrid zinnias and save the seed for next year, you may get more streaky or pinky red, and the plants may not be as tall and strong.
You’ll have the best seed-saving results from seeds that are described as heirloom or open-pollinated, so read labels and online or catalog descriptions carefully.
Most socially responsible: Seed Savers Exchange
This world-famous seed supplier is based in Decorah (seedsavers.org), and its main function is to offer a variety of heirloom seeds so the public and others will grow them and keep the strains viable for decades to come.
Best of all, since everything is heirloom and not a modern F1 hybrid, you can save the seed and grow it again and again each year.
Most comprehensive: Baker Creek Heirloom Seed
Anymore, I avoid seed catalogs. I’d rather save the trees and cut the clutter, but Baker Creek’s Whole Seed Catalog (rareseeds.com) is an exception. At 500 or so pages, it’s huge. It offers more than a 1,000 heirloom and rare seeds, with gorgeous, globally aware photography.
There are all the standard seed favorites but also hard-to-find seeds, like three different types of buckwheat, two types of jelly melon, goji berry and plants I didn’t even know existed, like “toothache plant” and lion’s ear.
Most inspirational: Renee’s Garden
The illustrated seed packets alone are worth doing business with Renee’s Garden (reneesgarden.com). I often leave them decoratively lying about on my kitchen desk, just because they’re so dang attractive. Renee’s also provides quality seed, with an emphasis on European, Asian and other more unusual gourmet varieties that will get you experimenting in your garden and in your kitchen. I love that they also provide mouthwatering innovative recipes for many of the plants they sell.
Renee’s also has a focus on annual flowers for drying and arranging, which never fails to get me to fantasizing about planting a big cutting garden.
Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.
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