November 14, 1997
I've noticed that seed catalogs are already starting to arrive. If you're like me, you'll be ordering your seeds early in January. You might not think it matters from which catalog you order, but I hope to convince you otherwise.
Why It Matters
It is important to remember that seeds are living things. They may not be actively growing, but a seed's metabolism is actually functioning in most cases. Over time, a seed can use up enough of its reserves that it won't have the energy or resources to sprout, root, send up seed leaves, and make its first true leaf; all of which have to occur before the plant can began to make its own food. Knowing this, it is easy to see why younger seeds germinate more quickly than older seeds – they simply have more reserves available.
In addition, both the embryonic plant within the seed and the food reserves themselves can be weakened or damaged by diseases, molds, fungi, or even air (specifically oxygen). High temperatures, moisture, and physical damage to the seed coat can all contribute to deterioration of the seed. Moisture is especially a problem: Not only does it weaken the seed coat (which allows air, more moisture, and pathogens to get into the seed), but also it can trigger the breaking of the seed's dormancy. Once a seed is no longer dormant it must grow into a plant or it will die – there's no turning back.
Choosing A Seed Company
Seed companies are very aware of all this information. Because of this, some seed companies build seed warehouses which keep their stocks cool and dry (usually 50°F and 50% relative humidity). Those merchants who sell primarily to farmers, such as Stokes Seeds, would never consider NOT doing this. The best garden seed suppliers, such as Territorial Seed Company, Johnny's Selected Seeds, and Park Seed Company all do this too. Does your seed company? Read their catalog carefully. If they don't tell you, call and find out.
Now, let's say your seed company does all the right things: There's still another consideration. To misquote George Orwell, "All plants are created equal; but some plants are more equal than others". In other words, it doesn't matter how good the seed is if the variety will not grow well in your garden! For this reason, I recommend you find a seed company located in a climate similar to your own. Also make sure that seed company has a trial grounds, where they actually test grow the varieties they sell. This is especially important for plants which are marginal in your area (here in the maritime Pacific Northwest, for example, this means any heat lover!). A company may be as ethical as the day is long, but it doesn't mean their pepper varieties will grow in your garden!
Finally, I think it is wise to start out by making small orders from several different companies. Do this for a year or two. This will give you a feel for how well each merchant's varieties do in your garden, and also whether or not you like doing business with them. After the first year or two you can shrink your list down to a few select seed companies. Note that my favorite seed companies may not be the best ones for you! It depends where you garden.
Want To Learn More?
If you'd like to learn more about seeds, here's some good reading. Amber Hearn, co-owner of Whippoorwill Creek Nursery, has written a number of excellent articles on plant propagation. Another good resource is Tom Clothier's Seed Page. Both Amber and Tom talk about ornamentals as well as edibles. Amber's articles also cover other methods of plant propagation.
A number of the U.S. land grant colleges have, in their on-line horticultural databases, information on seeds. Here are pages from Oregon State University, Washington State University, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Of course, I can't resist throwing in my own Seeds FAQ.
All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated July 9, 2011