Sourcing heirloom and organic garden seed is becoming easier for gardeners than ever before. A couple generations ago, gardeners needed to save seed from one crop to the next, but now gardeners can shop online for a wide variety of heirloom and organic seeds.
Heirloom seeds are non-hybrid, open pollinated varieties while organic seeds are those produced with chemical free, all natural growing methods. Read here for more detailed definitions. All organic seeds are untreated, meaning they are not fumigated with fungicides. Gardeners’ reasons for making heirloom and organic seeds a priority include: Personal health, health of the environment, saving seed from one crop to the next, supporting small businesses, unique plant varieties, and connecting with natural heritage.
In the past few decades, synthetic agricultural inputs have become conveniently available, but that doesn’t mean they are healthful for our bodies or the environment. Organic growing practices are like natural medicine: the focus is on prevention by building and maintaining health rather than intervention after damage is done. A balanced way is to focus on building robust health through natural day-to-day methods, while reserving synthetic chemicals for infrequent times when immediate intervention is critical.
Guidelines for Sourcing Heirloom and Organic Seeds
Internet searches revel that heirloom and organic seeds are available at an overwhelming range of price points, quantities, and locations. These guidelines help:
- Buy local/regional. Sourcing from local/regional seed producers is the essential parameter that helps decide where to buy. Seed from local/regional producers is more likely to be appropriate for the prevailing climate zone. Supporting local producers circulates dollars closer to home and boosts the local economy. Supporting local also reduces the energy consumed in transport.
- Allow time to plan ahead. It takes time to research, inventory your seed, read seed catalogs, comparison shop, and figure out what to buy, but it takes a whole lot less time than saving all your seed yourself.
- Buy early. Many heirloom and organic seeds are in limited supply, making sell outs likely. Buying before planting season begins is ideal.
- Buy from multiple sources. One-stop-shopping doesn’t work in the seed world. No seed supplier specializes in everything that you want to grow at the price you want to pay. Typically, the the seed suppliers with the best selection and the most information cost more than suppliers with a narrow selection and little information.
- Buy quantity. The smallest packet is only a good value if you want to try something new or plan to save seed for future crops. The second smallest packet is a much better value.
- Ask around. Local gardeners may have heirloom seed saved to share or trade and an interesting story to tell about it.
Heirloom and Organic Seed Comparison Shopping with Southern Suppliers
I set out to comparison shop for some fall/winter garden staples between three suppliers with the widest selection: Southern Exposure, Vegetable Seed Warehouse, and Sow True Seed. The seeds I compared were lettuce, kale, spinach, chard, carrots, and onions.
It is challenging to come up with conclusive answers as to the best overall value for several reasons. The seed packet sizes are not standardized. Most seed is measured by weight (occasionally by the number of seeds, like 25), but there is quite a bit of conversion work to do because some companies go with ounces as either fractions or decimals, while others use grams. One company might be the best value for the smallest packet, but then another company was a better value if going up a packet size. I’ll email you with my calculations if you think that will help your decision making process.
If Vegetable Seed Warehouse had the garlic and onion that I want, I would order through them because prices are lower overall. Instead, I’ll order through Southern Exposure because they have everything and I get a 5% discount with my member number.
Vegetable Seed Warehouse, Charleston SC, www.seedsforthesouth.com
Vegetable Seed Warehouse (VSW) specializes in heirloom seeds for southern gardens. Large selection of heirloom tomato seeds. VSW uses the same introductory packet size by weight for all their seed, no matter what the seed size. For example, their smallest size is always .06 oz/1.7g while the next size up is always .5 oz (14g). This standardization results in some seeds being a great value while others are overpriced. VSW has lower prices on many items than the other producers, but they also have a low tech website with very little information and no pictures. The seed packets are recloseable plastic bags without planting info. Free sample seed pack with order. Reasonable shipping charges $3.50.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Virginia, http://www.southernexposure.com/
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) has an extensive selection of heirloom and organic seeds, emphasizing vegetables, flowers, and herbs that grow well in the Mid-Atlantic region. Full line of onion sets, seed garlic, and seed potatoes. They produce their own seed and also contract out to organic farmers. Southern Exposure’s packet sizes tend to run larger than the other two companies compared, which explains in part their higher prices. They also provide a lot of information on their website and in their printed catalog. The website has lots of pictures, guides and how to’s. Paper seed packets with standard planting info (not customized for each type of seed). Seasonal email newsletter with planting guides. Shipping charges starting at $3.50 and up based on purchase price. Additional $2 charge for shipping a heavier item like garlic. SESE offers a 5% discount at online checkout with your member number. Get a member number by ordering a catalog. Someday I’ll attend the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello that SESE sponsors each September.
Sow True Seed, Asheville NC, http://sowtrueseed.com/
Sow True Seed (STS) produces their own certified organic seed and sources seed that does well in the southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont foothills. Wide selection of herb, vegetable, and flower seed. Some pictures. Has a number of helpful guides, how to pages, and an email newsletter. Of the three companies compared, STS has the highest prices with the smallest seed packets. Shipping charges starting at $3.95 and up based on purchase price. Additional $2 charge for heavy items like garlic.
New Hope Seed Company, Bon Aqua TN, http://www.newhopeseed.com/
New Hope sells open-pollinated & heirloom seed that they produce themselves. The seeds produced include: beans, corn, eggplant, melon, okra, pepper, tomato, squash, sweet potato starts, tobacco starts. Selection is narrow and quantities may be limited, but they score high on quality and close to home. Sweet potato and tobacco plants ship free. Seed shipping starts at $5.45 for up to $30.
Marianna’s Heirloom Seeds, Dickson TN, http://www.mariseeds.com/
Marianna’s specializes in a vast selection of heirloom tomato seeds grown herself. An excellent selection of pepper and eggplant seeds as well. Seeds are untreated and grown organically, though not certified. Seed packets contain between 25-40 seeds. Each packet costs about $2.95. Shipping is $4.95.
South Carolina Crop Improvement Assoc., Foundation Seed Program at Clemson University, http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/seed/heirloom.htm
South Carolina Foundation Seed Association
Produces a limited selection of heirloom seeds, mostly beans and peas, and some corn and okra. Packet of 25 seeds costs about $2.00. Shipping charges $2.50 for the first packet and $.50 for each additional packet.
Reimer Seeds, Mt Holly NC, http://www.reimerseeds.com/
Reimer sells all non-GMO vegetable, flower and herb seeds. They note in their online catalog which seeds have been treated. Heirloom and organic seed is a portion of their business. They do not have seed categorized by heirloom or organic and no way to search for just those seeds (you have to visit each seed individually to learn its origin). If they make their seed database searchable by organic and heirloom and untreated, then I’ll be interested.
Park Seed Company, Greenwood SC, http://parkseed.com/default.aspx
Park Seed is a large, diversified producer selling all kinds of seeds and garden needs. They have a limited selection of organic seed, which comprises a small part of their business.
I’ll happily add to this list as I learn of other heirloom and organic seed suppliers in the south.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your seeds.
To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves. --Mahatma Gandhi