Reaping What You Sow

Responsible Seed Growing and Saving in 2011
Gone are the days when a seed was just a seed. Now seeds are genetically modified, manipulated to be pesticide- and chemical-resistant and even encrypted with patents. Most traditional garden centers sell seeds with some of these altered characteristics, although you won’t know it from reading the labels.

These so-called “frankenseeds’ have manufacturers that wield some serious clout. (Don’t believe me? Check out this seed industry chart created by Assistant Professor Philip H. Howard at Michigan State University.) But seeds don’t need to be scary—far from it! As you plan your spring garden, consider these responsible seed companies that uphold heritage, heirloom seed growing and saving techniques:

    Seed Savers Exchange: Seed Savers is a member-supported organization that strives to save and replenish North America’s rich, diverse garden heritage. For over 35 years, Seed Savers Exchange has grown, saved and distributed rare, heirloom seeds to members and non-members alike. The Exchange’s 890-acre Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, is open to the public April through October.

      High Mowing Organic Seeds: Owner Tom Stearns began High Mowing Organic Seeds in 1996 out of his backyard in northern Vermont with a simple hand-written seed catalog. Now, High Moving Organic Seeds offers over “450 heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid varieties of vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seed.” Although the company has grown in size, many of the varieties are still grown on the Wolcott, Vermont, operation’s 40-acre farm.

        Johnny’s Selected Seeds: This Maine-based company is a popular source of high-quality, non-hybrid products both for small farm operations and home gardeners. Rob Johnston began the company in 1973 as a 22-year-old out of his New Hampshire farmhouse. After years of experimenting, Johnny’s Selected Seeds prides itself on rigorous seed testing. The company is partially employee-owned and its 40-acre research farm is open to the public from July to September.

          Hudson Valley Seed Library: Ken Greene and Doug Muller began the Hudson Valley Seed Library to do two things: create a place where people could get regionally adapted seeds and to support the talents of local community members and artists via their beautiful, gift-quality seed packs. The Seed Library utilizes its own farm and the acreage of other Hudson Valley and upstate New York farmers committed to organic practices to grow seeds. Members of the Library also have an opportunity to help with the seed-saving effort. By 2014, it hopes to offer 100% New York-grown seed varieties.

          Other seed companies to check out: Heirloom, non-GMO seed grower Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and its family seed company Comstock, Ferre & Co.; as well as Terroir Seeds/Underwood Gardens; and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange of Central Virginia.

          The best seed-saving method? Do it yourself! Many of the recommended seed companies described above offer instructions, seed-saving guides and tutorials on their websites. Start by reading Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed (Seed Savers Exchange) which gives a comprehensive overview on the practice as well as region-specific growing practices.

          Before you can reap the benefits of your garden this summer, remember that it all starts with a tiny seed. Consider planting seeds that promote cultural, regional and biological heritage.