Season of Seeds
With the passing of winter solstice, the days grow longer, signifying to me the season of the seeds. This is always an exciting time for me, poring through seed catalogs searching for that unique tomato or corn seed that promises to produce a fruit full of flavor that will easily to grow in our climate, and also be productive. These traits are as important to a market farmer as they are to any backyard gardener here on the North Coast.
For anyone spending time searching for those secret seeds, it doesn’t take long to realize the possibilities are overwhelming. With hundreds of varieties of any one fruit or vegetable, how do we choose the right one? The answer (unless you have an old farmer friend or relative) comes with experience and experimentation, but there are some general rules to guide you.
Seed source selection rule # 1: Purchase seed from a source with a good reputation. I do my best to purchase seeds from smaller farms or seed companies that I or my friends have had predictable success with.
Seed source selection rule # 2: Purchase seed from a source as close to your farm as possible. The closer a seed is sourced to your farm or garden, the more well-adapted that seed is to your climate. It has been proven that even over short periods of time, plants will acclimate to the local seasonal climate nuances, and the seed from those plants will perform better than seed of the same variety that is sourced from another area. That’s right, plants adapt to your microclimate!
Seed source selection rule # 3: Save your own seed and use it every year. This takes some work, and with some varieties it can be a challenge not contaminating your seed due to other nearby similar varieties’ incidental cross pollination, but that is how new varieties are made. So give it a shot, save your seed and see what happens…who knows, maybe you will develop an award winning tomato!
The three rules listed above are my general rules of the seed selection process, but there are still more questions for the novice and experienced farmer. Like, do I want heirloom or open-pollinated, hybrid, organic, conventional, or GMO, and what’s the difference?
Open-pollinated seeds are produced when pollination occurs due to insects, birds, wind, humans, or other natural factors. Since there are no restrictions on the exchange of pollen, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. Which means a greater amount of variation, allowing the plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate over the years.
Heirloom seed comes from a variety that has been passed down through several generations by a family or community due to the desired traits, such as flavor, reliability and yield. Interestingly, heirloom varieties are typically open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.
Hybrid seed is produced by a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species within the same family, like squash, are crossed by human intervention. Hybridization can also occur through random natural crosses. First generation hybrid plants tend to grow stronger, producing higher yields referred to as ‘hybrid vigor’.
In order for a seed to be sold as organic, it must adhere to the specifications defined in the National Organic Standards Act. These days there are a wide array of choices for purchasing organic seed, and you will know those seeds are organic by the presence of the USDA Organic logo on the package certifying the seed is in compliance with national organic standards.
Conventional seed are those seeds typically developed by larger seed companies for use at the industrial agriculture scale. These are the seeds that produce tomatoes that ship well but have no flavor, or other qualities that make it easy to plant, harvest and ship huge quantities of any particular fruit or vegetable. These seeds are sold in large quantities and small, and may have been treated with fungicides or other conventional farm management methods. Conventional seed is not inspected and no national certification is required.
Genetically modified seed comes from a plant whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These methods create a plant that resists certain herbicides like Roundup or produces a systemic pest resistance. Genetically modified seed is not legally allowed to be planted in Humboldt County since the passage of Measure P in 2014.
Below I have listed several of my favorite small- to medium-size seed sources for you to explore this winter. I hope you enjoy!
“We are an organic seed farm nestled in the Lassen foothills of northern California. Our varieties are open pollinated meaning you too can save seeds from them. We grow cultivars with diverse climate regions in mind; from the coast to the valley and mountains we have seeds that will thrive in your garden. “
•100% Certified Organic Seeds grown on family farms in northern California
•Open Pollinated, Non-hybrid, Heirloom, No GMO
•All seeds planted, harvested, cleaned and packed by hand.
“High Mowing Organic Seeds began in 1996 with just 28 varieties. After tilling up a portion of his backyard and turning his shed into a seed packing area, founder Tom Stearns had no trouble selling the seed he grew that first year. Suddenly, what had started as a hobby became a practical business pursuit, as Tom realized the growing and unmet demand for organic seed. “
“At High Mowing Organic Seeds, we believe in re-imagining what our world can be like. We believe in a deeper understanding of how re-built food systems can support health on all levels – healthy environments, healthy economies, healthy communities and healthy bodies.”
“Territorial Seed Company is a privately held company, wholly owned by Tom and Julie Johns. Purchased in 1985 from its founder Steve Solomon, Tom and Julie have grown the business substantially over the past 26 years but have never strayed far from the original course set by Steve.”
“Fedco Seeds, your source for cold-hardy selections especially adapted to our demanding Northeast climate. Each year we observe hundreds of varieties, selecting only the best for inclusion in our catalogs. Through our product lines and cultural hints, we encourage sustainable growing methods. We offer a large selection of certified-organic cultivars and regional heirloom varieties. We buy products from all over the world.”
“We are a cooperative, one of the few seed companies so organized in the United States. Because we do not have an individual owner or beneficiary, profit is not our primary goal. Consumers own 60% of the cooperative and worker members 40%. Consumer and worker members share proportionately in the cooperative’s profits through our annual patronage dividends.”
“Johnny’s Selected Seeds is a privately held, employee-owned seed producer and merchant headquartered in Winslow, Maine, USA.”
“Gary Ibsen is the founder of TomatoFest®. Many gardeners call him “The TomatoMan”. If you love tomatoes, and desire that garden fresh tomato taste, then you’ve come to the right place.”
“Over 30 years ago, a Portuguese farmer, who lived down the road, offered me an organically grown heirloom tomato, right from his garden. The pleasurable experience I had, as I bit into that sweet, ripe heirloom tomato, charted my heirloom tomato gardening journey!”
“Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit, 501(c)(3), member supported organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations.”