DIY Home

Starting Small: Buying and Storing Seeds

February  7, 2012

This is the third in our biweekly series from Amy Pennington – urban farmer, founder of GoGo Green Garden, and author of Urban Pantry and Apartment Gardening – on how to start growing your own food, no matter how tiny your garden-to-be is.

Today: Amy shows us how to give our fruits and vegetables a head start by buying good seeds.

Shop the Story

Starting Small: Buying and Storing Seeds

- Amy

Searching for and choosing which seeds to grow is definitely one of the best parts of gardening. Planting from seed gives the home gardener flexibility and offers a certain creative spirit to the garden. Just think: if you like spicy greens like arugula, there are twenty-something more plants you've probably never heard of that will round out your salad bowl! When purchasing seed, I suggest going with vegetables you love and those that you cannot otherwise find commercially. No sense in growing a market cucumber (that traditional green cuke you see everywhere) when you can grow a thin-skinned Israeli Striped Cucumber. Mix it up. Have fun with it.

Using your garden wish list from last week, you're armed with a shopping plan. And I probably shouldn't tell you this, but here's the truth: order as many seeds as you like. Go crazy. Those shiny plant pictures are enticing and even if you purchase more seeds than your garden can handle, that's ok! When it comes time to plant you will have an inventory to choose from, and that's never a bad situation. Just make sure you order somewhat evenly from every crop rotation — leaf, root, flower, and fruit. When my seeds arrive, I file them in old recipe boxes by crop rotation, which helps to keep things uber-organized.


There are many seed sources, from nurseries and hardware stores to mail-order catalogs and online companies. I have to admit that while I have my favorites, there is no ONE resource for seeds. There are, however, a few rules to follow that will help narrow down your options:

1. Always purchase organic seed. By purchasing organic seed, you are supporting growers who have carefully and naturally bred plants for the best production. Additionally, as big corporations continue to gain control over the vast majority of our seed options, purchasing organic helps keep diversity alive. Over the last several hundred years, we have lost a fair amount of genetic diversity in our seeds; as gardeners, we have the ability to play a key role in that selection.

2. Choose varieties adapted to your local conditions. By doing so you run the least risk of failure, as the plants are acclimated to your regional conditions. Plants evolve and change to accommodate their environment, so when you purchase seed that has been grown close to home (or grown in conditions similar to where you live), you're increasing your chances of success.

3. Sow dates and maturing times are important. Many seed packets read "Sow after last frost," which can be confusing. In my view, seeds fall into three categories of planting times: those that can be planted first thing in spring, those that do well in heat (considered "heat tolerant" or "heat lovers"), and those that are good cool-weather crops. Check out your local university extension for specific planting calendars — they are a great resource.

4. Check the life cycle of your plant: maturing times ("50 days," "85 days") are helpful, as they allow you to map your garden around your schedule and make plans based on when you will be harvesting. For example, if you're planting lettuce in May and traveling for the month of July, you should steer clear of varieties with a 60-day maturing time. Instead, opt for quick-maturing lettuces that have a 45-day turnaround.

5. Note whether the plant is open-pollinated, heirloom, or hybrid by looking on your seed packet. Open-pollinated and heirloom seeds produce mature plants that create seeds that, when replanted, stay true to the parent plant. Opt for these varieties if you would like to save your seed. Hybrid plants have been cross-bred (think of Mendeleev's crossed pea plants), and their seeds will not produce plants with the same qualities as the parent.

Ordering Strategy and First Planting
It is important to keep climate in mind when purchasing seeds. For example, the Pacific Northwest has mild winters that allow for year-round gardening (especially hardy greens and brassicas like kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli), but a short, cool summer season that makes melons, peppers, and corn (which need long, hot summers) challenging to grow. In contrast, Midwestern states have a hot summer season ideal for tomatoes and peppers, but winters that are generally too cold for unprotected outdoor crops. Size matters, too: if you are growing in small containers (which will limit a plant's growth) it is best to choose a smaller variety of plant. If dwarf varieties of your favorite vegetable are available, select those.

For your first planting this year, think lettuces, greens, and root vegetables. Spring planting begs for lettuces. Don't hold back — I purchase far more lettuce seeds than anything else because they are quick-growing and continue producing until your second crop rotation of flowers and fruits like tomatoes and broccoli is ready to harvest. (And because I'm addicted to salad.) Carrots, radishes, beets, and turnips are popular and easy-to-grow spring root vegetables.

Here are a few great sources for reading up on and buying seed.

Seeds of Change - This company has an awesome website with lots of great information. Even though they are located in the Pacific Northwest, they sell varieties that won't do well there. Pay attention to the growing cycle of each plant and make sure it doesn't require a long hot season (but if you're in hot New York like my family, plant some corn!)

Seed Savers Exchange - These folks are the bomb. They are more costly than others, so I order from there selectively, but they are a wonderful organization dedicated to saving and sharing rare and heirloom seeds. I picked up a packet of "Crisp Mint Lettuce" last year — a frilly Romaine-like lettuce — and it was awesome.

Fedco Seeds - This seed company is old school and dedicated to the craft of seed saving. They have many varieties and do well in Northern latitudes. The only downfall is there are no pictures in the catalog and not many online, so you have to go off of their whimsical descriptions.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - This company is totally rad, and they carry a lot of heat-loving plant varieties. They are my one-stop source for melons and peppers. Check them out for inspiration and rare seeds. They are small and wonderful.

Osborne Seeds
- A Pacific Northwest seed company that sells varieties just right for our climate. Sorry, East coasters, but HURRAH for us!

Do you have any great seed resources? List them in the comments!

Photos by Della Chen

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • sparkplug
  • cookinginvictoria
  • Kitchen Witchen
    Kitchen Witchen
  • SCJ
  • M N
    M N
I am a cook and food writer, author & gardener who is passionate about the environment, using sustainable resources, reducing my impact on the earth and making conscious food choices that are both smart for the planet and taste fantastic. When I'm not knee deep in dirt growing food, you can find me in the kitchen where I'm likely standing over a canning pot or staring up in to my pantry deciding what to make. In the gardens, I have a business gogo green garden, wherein I build, plant & tend edible gardens for folks in their urban backyards. I also launched a garden-sharing website in 2009 that connects urban gardeners to unused garden space across the country - Check it out!


sparkplug February 17, 2012
Love the series so far!
Abbondanza is a great source for seeds in Colorado!
cookinginvictoria February 17, 2012
Amy, I love all of the PNW seed sources you have cited. For those in Western Canada, I highly recommend the B.C. Company West Coast Seeds for really good variety. For those who want to grow some unusual Italian heirloom vegetables, check out Franchi seeds, which can be ordered online in the States. I am able to buy them locally. Last year I bought Franchi seeds and grew cardoons and puntarelle (an addictive Italian chicory).
Amy P. February 17, 2012
Both EXCELLENT suggestions, thank you for reminding me and others!
Kitchen W. February 12, 2012
This is a wonderful company. All organic seeds.
saucy. V. February 22, 2012
Yay!!! High Mowing is the best! And right here in little Vermont. I am so glad you are doing this series Amy :) People ask me all the time how they can possibly grow anything with no land... I am just writing about that myself today. And so glad you stress the importance of organic. We have an organic farm in VT, I write about my adventures in farming and food here: if you are interested :)
SCJ February 12, 2012
I'd love to begin a container garden as our yard is sloped and essentially volcanic rock. I'd particularly love to grow heirloom tomatoes, greens, beets and other root vegetables. I see many comments about growing areas on the mainland, but I live in Honolulu. I would guess I should seek out heat loving seeds, but can you point me in the direction of more specific information? Mahalo!
gingerroot February 12, 2012
Hi SCJ! I'm also in Honolulu and work for Foodscapes Hawaii, we design, install and maintain organic food gardens (or container gardens). We have clients all over Oahu and now have a pretty good idea of what will grow well here. Message me through the site and perhaps I can steer you in the right direction. Aloha, Jenny (gingerroot) PS, I've grown all the veggies you mentioned in my little raised bed - now would be the time to try beets as they like it a little cooler. I've grown carrots and turnips year round though they do like a little shade. Tomatoes love the heat here.
Amy P. February 17, 2012
HI SCJ - as you look for seeds, YES you will have to choose more of a heat loving plant, but your possibilities are far more than other mainland gardeners, so you're lucky in that way! Looks like gingerroot can provide some information, and I will also encourage you to call your University Extension program and see if they can provide you with a vegetable planting calendar to take some of the guess work out of it. Good luck! Keep us posted.
M N. February 9, 2012
Does anyone have any recommendations for the Gulf Coast area? Our weather is so different here from everywhere else that I don't know where to begin.
Amy P. February 17, 2012
MN, I live in a maritime climate as well. Check out your local University Extension program and see if they have a vegetable planting guide to share. That would be the first place to look. Otherwise, stay tuned here, as we'll discuss what to plant in the coming weeks and you can make educated choices specific to your area then.
Amy P. February 9, 2012
Hey everyone
Thanks for great tips and thoughts! keep'em coming!
Valhalla February 8, 2012
I just thought of another post I'd love to see in the future--I know you've got a lot of ground to cover first--incorporating technology into garden planning. I know there are several apps, but frankly every one I have tried has sucked! The best method I have found so far is to consult my extension service planting charts and then make my own, but surely there is something more efficient for those who lack tech skills but would like to be more tech savvy! For example, I feel like I need a spread sheet to keep track of my succession planting, but spreadsheets are not very fun.
Amy P. February 9, 2012
Hey Valhalla

I totally agree and your right there are no good apps. I will keep my eyes peeled and ears open and report back anything I find . Stay tuned!
Janet K. February 13, 2012
As I stated in another post try Mother Earth News Garden planner it keeps track for you and tags if the crop rotation is not compatible.
carmeneatyourgreens February 8, 2012
I really like High Mowing Seeds. Their website has lots of pictures and is easy to navigate.
AmandaE February 8, 2012
Southern Exposure is great for those in the Midatlantic region The sell great mixes for those that are just getting started with Heirloom seeds and gardening in general. Also recommend Sprout Robot for knowing when/how/where to plant your seeds. They also sell packages that are specially formatted for the region you are in
hardlikearmour February 8, 2012
Territorial Seeds is another great PNW resource.
MrsWheelbarrow February 8, 2012
I love Thompson Morgan seeds. They are fresh and relatively inexpensive. There are many varieties I've never seen before.
Valhalla February 8, 2012
For southern and midatlantic gardeners,
I also like
I've never had great success with carrots, but there is a round variety that does okay--sometimes called "French market"--great for new gardeners.
d_ribbens February 8, 2012
Can anyone recommend a seed/planting guide resource for the East Coast? Really looking forward to the rest of your articles - my first attempt at urban gardening last year yielded a fair amount of lettuce, 12 hot peppers, and 1 carrot ha ha! My tomato plants were an utter failure, so I am hoping to remedy that this year!
wssmom February 8, 2012
I also would love to see a seed/planting guide for the East!
hardlikearmour February 8, 2012
Have you check your local nursery? There's a great nursery in Portland, OR that puts out a Veggie Calendar, so maybe there's something similar for you locally.
CrewLunch February 8, 2012
I am an organic farmer in Vermont and Johnny's Selected Seeds is my go-to for most of my crops ( High Mowing has some really nice heirlooms too. If you can bear being overwhelmed by choices, Totally Tomato has literally thousands of varieties, several of which are suitable for containers. Good luck.
Janet K. February 13, 2012
Hello, Mother Earth News has a vegetable garden planner that is guided by your zip code it is pretty good and easy to use.
d_ribbens February 17, 2012
Thank you for the suggestions!
aargersi February 8, 2012
Carte Blanche to order a ton of seeds! I am so happy! These folks do tomatoes only - but man-o-man what a selection!

mcs3000 February 8, 2012
Love this column - answers all the questions I was looking for when I started gardening a few years ago. I am obsessed with seed catalogues, especially Baker Creek. For Bay Area readers, I also like this SF-based company:
Margit V. February 8, 2012
Two seed sources--organic and with wonderful variety--are High Mowing Seeds in Vermont and Wild Garden Seed, the home of Frank Morton's amazing lettuces! Love your writing and useful information, Amy!
butterballsssss February 8, 2012
Wow! This was really helpful!