Sussing Out Seeds

With spring still a few months away, gardeners turn their attention to planning for next season. The time-honored ritual of perusing gardening catalogs usually results in a list of plants that totals about five times your actual garden budget. The best way to stretch your gardening dollar? Seeds.

Every year, Spotts Garden Service hosts a Soup and Seeds party in January. We get together with our clients, hand out seed catalogs, and start the list-making process. We swap old seeds, order new ones, and bundle our seed orders together to save on shipping. So with Soup and Seeds nearly upon us, we think it’s a great time to go over a few seed basics.

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds is one of our favorite companies.

We’ve written before about self-sowing annuals, which are a fantastic way to add color to your garden border for little cash. Plant them once, then let them drop seed every season. We have Nigella in the garden that’s going on its sixth year, and we haven’t touched it since we planted it in 2007.

If it’s self-sowers you want, consider annual poppies, annual phlox, calendula, cosmos, larkspur, and nigella. All are hardy here in Indy, dropping seeds that can survive our winter and come back in the spring.

As for vegetables, we think it’s important to know the difference between open-pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid seeds.

Open-pollinated (OP) species are those that breed true to type. That means if you save seeds from an OP tomato (a Brandywine, for example) and plant them, you’ll get a Brandywine tomato. OP seeds are the way to go if you want to save seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange carries only OP seeds and works to preserve heirloom seeds and biological diversity.

Hybrid varieties are created by crossing one strain of a plant with another strain. The resulting plant is a first generation hybrid, or F1. Hybrids are often more vigorous than either of their parent plants, but don’t bother saving seed from them. Plant the seeds from a Better Boy hybrid tomato, and you’ll get one of its parent plants, not a Better Boy.

Hybridizing plants is a natural phenomenon, and one humans have been taking advantage of for millenia. A hybrid is not the same thing as a genetically modified organism (GMO). A GMO is the result of taking genes from one species (like a fish) and inserting it into a completely unrelated species (like a tomato). We strongly encourage you to order your seeds only from companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, which ensures that they do not knowingly buy or sell GMOs. Horticulture magazine has a list of companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge here.

Heirloom seeds are those from plants that have been passed down within families of gardeners for generations. That makes them uniquely suited to the environments in which they grow. Heirlooms are open pollinated, so you can save the seeds from this year’s crop to plant next year.

Organic seeds are those grown using only organic-approved methods and no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. In addition, organic seeds contain no genetically modified organisms. To be sold as organic, seeds must be certified by a certification organization. For more information, check out the Seeds of Change home page at

Before you make this year’s order, go through your seed supply. We mark our seed packets with the year we purchased them, as well as how long the seeds should be good under normal conditions (stored in a cool, dark, dry place). According to Barbara Pleasant, author of the excellent Starter Vegetable Gardens, you can expect seeds to last about this long:

1 to 2 years: Corn, lettuce, okra, onion, parsley, pepper

3 to 4 years: Bean, beet, carrot, chard, leek, pea, squash, tomato

5 years or more: Broccoli, Brussels sprout, cantaloupe, cauliflower, celery, Chinese cabbage, cucumber

Once you discard no-longer-viable seeds, you’re ready to make this year’s list. Some of our favorites suppliers are Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, Johnny’s Select Seeds, and Seed Savers Exchange. So pull out your pens (or fire up your laptop), and start plotting out next year’s garden!

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About Amy Mullen

Amy graduated from DePauw University with a degree in physics, a lifelong love of theatre, and a problem-solving style that combines the approaches from both those fields. A Master Gardener and long-time communications professional, Amy conducts gardening seminars and blogs about gardening in addition to her work with Spotts.
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