Spring’s last cold snap is here – let’s all curl up on our couches and flip through some beautiful seed catalogs! Some are works of art in their own right, with hand-drawn plant illustrations and detailed histories of heirloom seeds. It can be hard to decide which one to order from. If you also browse the seed packets display at your local garden center, you’re in danger of picking up a packet of carrots or spinach from every single tempting source.
There’s a smarter way. This winter we sent away for all the pretty catalogs (they’re free!) and did a little research to find out which ones are best, and why. We eat everything we grow, so our focus was on vegetable catalogs (there are very few ornamentals in our tiny garden). In researching seed choices, we limited ourselves to heirloom seeds because those are usually the vegetables with superior flavor. Which seed catalog is the right one for you? Here’s how to decide.
There are really about a bajillion seed catalogs out there, so how did we narrow our list down to seven? Simple – we looked for three things that are important to us when it comes to heirloom seeds.
We don’t necessarily mean buying seeds from a locally-owned small business near you – although that’s ideal if you can. Instead, look for suppliers based in your growing zone, and the closer to you the better. Seeds developed and saved in your same zone will be more acclimated to your growing area’s quirks. Local seeds will adapt more quickly to your soil and weather patterns. Also, the seed company probably works more with plant varieties particularly suited to your region. This is why we buy from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which is about an hour away from us in Virginia.
The best heirloom seeds aren’t necessarily labeled “organic.” The organic label is a costly Federal certification that not every small farmer or gardening business can afford. Instead, look for the words “earth friendly,” which basically means “we’re organic but we can’t afford the certification.” Call the seed company and ask questions to make sure you agree with their practices.
Look also for the “safe seed pledge.” Companies featuring this pledge in their catalogs and websites dedicated themselves to using non-GMO seeds and sustainable growing practices.
We like to support seed companies that are committed to ongoing research and development. Many heirloom seed companies work hard to recover and preserve rare heirloom varieties. If you buy seeds from a company dedicated to seed saving, your money helps support the larger global gardening and food web.
These seven heirloom seed companies meet our criteria for quality. Any of these will sell you some terrific seeds! We recommend browsing their websites and ordering the print catalogs to get a feel for each seed company’s personality, then choose the one (or ones) you like best. If you’re lucky, your favorite will also be the seed company down the road.
A small company saving non-GMO heirlooms in a challenging climate, Annie’s toughs it out in one of the chilliest zones in the midwest. A husband and wife team run this small farm in Michigan, focusing on local heirloom varieties.
Baker Creek is the big daddy of heirloom seed companies. They have one of the largest, if not the largest selection of seeds. Their catalog photographs are beautiful, and customers eagerly await each new catalog to see the stunning cover.
Johnny’s is a favorite among gardeners in New England. Not only do they offer a wide ranging seed collection from one of the coldest zones in the country, but the website has lots of helpful growing resources, including the “Ask a Gardener” section where visitors can submit questions.
This seed catalog sparked the whole heirloom seed-saving movement. A nonprofit, Seed Savers Exchange has a seed bank of over 20,000 heirloom varieties, carefully stored in their seed vault. Their online information and resources are terrific for gardeners interested in learning how to save their own seeds.
You may have seen Seeds of Change grains on your grocery store shelf. The company has a great seed catalog as well. And they’re based where everything grows like a dream, in Nirvana – uh – California. They offer lots of interesting edibles like medicinal herbs and wheatgrass
Coop-owned, Southern Exposure is dedicated to preserving and developing regional heirloom varieties. The website has a spiffy digital garden planner, and owner/gardener Ira Wallace is the author of Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast.
This company sells hybrids and conventional seeds and plants, but they list heirloom seeds separately on their website. We love that they are a family-owned seed company in the Pacific Northwest, which is its own funky tropical-ish growing zone.
You might still buy some plants and seeds from your nearby garden center, but please develop a relationship with a seed catalog as well. You’ll be inspired every spring to try something new, and a good seed company will encourage you along the way.