Winter, with its intermittent snow and ice in many parts of the country, seemingly ceaseless rain here in the Pacific Northwest, and colder temperatures holding on in even the warmest areas, may not feel like the most important time for the home gardener. However, these cold days snuggled indoors provide the perfect time for those wishing to grow their own food to plan, prep, order, and daydream about spring buds and summer bounty.
The winter months are when seed companies release their newest catalogs. Seed catalogs! I didn’t know this was a thing until I planted my first real home kitchen garden in 2008 and began reading every book about home organic food production I could get my hands on. There is something so magical about flipping through page after page filled with pictures of the most gorgeous produce and their corresponding product descriptions that would put many dating site bios to shame. Likes, dislikes, preferred climate, size, shape, origin, vigor,… you get the picture. It’s wonderful!
Two of my favorite seed suppliers are: Territorial Seed Company, who published their first seed catalog in 1979 and are based in Cottage Gove, Oregon; and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, who published their first seed catalog in 1998, and are based in Mansfield, Missouri.
Territorial Seed Company’s mission is, “to improve people's self-sufficiency and independence by enabling gardeners to produce an abundance of good tasting, fresh from the garden food, twelve months a year”. Since their inception in the late 70’s, Territorial has dedicated itself to the cultivation of plants that “thrive and yield the highest quality of crops” and hold themselves to higher germination standards than required by the Federal Seed Act. They produce conventional non-GMO, organic, and biodynamic varieties of seeds.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has dedicated itself to the preservation and promotion of culinary heritage since its start. With over 1,800 seed varieties, Baker Creek produces one of the largest selections of seed varieties in the United Sates. Their seeds are sourced from 100 countries or tribes around the world, and they only sell open-pollinated seeds. They carry old favorites as well as hard to find and nearly forgotten heirloom varieties.
Each company has their strengths and does a beautiful job producing high-quality seeds for both home and commercial gardening. They would be great places to begin your Spring Garden planning this winter. One of the best things you can do for your family and the environment is to plant a home vegetable garden!
I know I just threw a lot of information at you, so let’s break down some of those seed-related terms down, shall we?
Definition: For a seed to be organic, the plant it came from must have been grown organically, and it must not be treated with any chemicals after harvest.
Farmers who grow organic produce do not use chemicals for fertilizer, weed, or pest control. This keeps the organic produce free of chemical residue and excess chemicals from soaking into the ground or running off into water sources.
Definition: Seeds you can buy just about anywhere. They are often sold very cheaply and are not organic or heirloom. Instead, they are hybridized or genetically modified versions of a plant, and are produced with the use with a combination of chemical fertilizers, lab technology and/or cross-pollination.
This is not to say that all cross-pollination is bad. Corn exists solely because of hybridization. Most fruits and vegetables at the grocery store are hybridized to produce uniform produce that can hold up during the transportation to the store and that have a longer shelf life. Often, in breeding for longer transportation and shelf life as the most desired characteristic, flavor loses out.
Definition: Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds are not bread in a garden but rather in a laboratory using techniques like gene splicing wherein scientists modify a seed’s DNA by inserting segments of DNA from one organism into another, usually across species, to ensure the resulting plant produces desired characteristics that cannot be achieved through normal breading methods.
Some GMO seeds are created to grow into plants that are resistant to the chemicals that the same company sells for weed control. That means that farmers must use larger quantities of weed killer while growing these plants. Even if weed killer is not used, GMO seeds may not be labeled as organic.
Definition: Reproduction and fertilization of seeds that can occur in two different ways: 1) as hybrid seeds or 2) as open-pollinated seeds.
It is important to know if the seeds you purchase are a hybrid plant that has been strategically cross-pollinated or if the seeds are the result of natural pollination, as it will affect the production of the plant’s offspring.
Definition: Seeds developed through carefully controlled cross-pollination of two different parent plants in order to produce new traits that can’t be created by inbreeding two of the same plants.
Hybrid varieties of plants may also be referred to as F1 and produce seeds that are not “true to type,” meaning that they do not conform to the known characteristics of a known variety. While they may produce desirable qualities in the F1 generation, the second generation of seeds doesn't produce the same vigor as the first generation, F1, so new seeds must be purchased.
Definition: Plants and seeds produced from random pollination by wind, birds, insects, or other natural means.
Unlike hybrids, open-pollinated seeds will reproduce true to type, meaning the offspring will display the same characteristics as the parent plant, and seeds can be saved from season to season.
Definition: With seed-grown plants, only open-pollinated varieties are considered heirlooms, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. They must also have at one time been significant in gardens but are now rare or may even be extinct in cultivation. Some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a variety that is more than 50 years old). For example, Seed Savers Exchange identifies heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed.
If you want to harvest seed from the plants you grow yourself, and therefore control how the plants are fertilized and treated, what you want are heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are often also organic, but they need not be.