187-The Informed Seed Shopper: What to Know Before You Buy

| Podcast, Prepare

Before placing your order online or filling out a seed catalog order form, be sure you are making the best buying decisions. In this week’s episode, I’m sharing tips to help make you a more informed seed shopper. 

Below, I explain what to do before you start, how to process the plethora of seed catalogs arriving at your home or in your email inbox, and the types of seed to look for to meet your needs. I’ll also get into the differences among the various seed companies, large and small, and other sources where you can get seeds for a very low price or even free.

Everyone’s heard by now about the overwhelming demand for seeds and gardening supplies in 2020 that arose due to the pandemic and the desire to get back to the basics. Seed companies, despite their best efforts, struggled to keep up with the pace of orders and many eventually sold out of all their stock. Well, seed demand is poised to be even higher for the 2021 growing season, and the time to plan your seed orders is now.

As you look ahead to seed starting, know that my joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting course is relaunching at the end of January 2021. The course covers everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed. You can sign up to be notified when enrollment begins.


Seedlings in soil blocks

With so many more people starting seeds at home this year during the pandemic, seed companies struggled to keep up with the pace of orders and many eventually sold out of all their stock. Seed demand is predicted to be even higher for the 2021 growing season.


Have a Plan Before You Buy

When shopping online, it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole. If you have ever gone on Amazon to buy one thing and found yourself adding more and more items to your cart because of all the enticing related products that were suggested, you know what I mean.

Gardeners buying seeds online or from a catalog can find themselves in the same situation rather easily. That’s why it is important to have a plan before browsing seed offerings. 

Some of us keep a notebook or online document to track varieties that we know we’ll be needing more of or that we want to grow. If that’s you, pat yourself on the back, because that’s a huge advantage coming into seed shopping.

Take Inventory of the Seeds You Have

For those of us who haven’t kept track of what we want and will need more of, the next best thing to do is to take inventory of what we already have. The old seed packets that you never got around to planting or that you only used half of may still be good if they have been stored in cool, dry, stable conditions. 

Some seeds last longer than others in storage before their viability begins to diminish. You can check their viability and germination rate by performing a simple test at home with a paper towel, water and a plastic bag. But this test takes time, and the window to get all the seeds that you want before they sell out is beginning to close.

To quickly give you an idea of whether seeds are worth hanging onto and planting, I’ve prepared a seed inventory chart and a seed longevity chart that you can download as PDFs and hang onto for your reference. A link within the seed inventory chart PDF will bring you to a Google Sheet that you can customize yourself.

You can also text SEEDGUIDES to 44222 to receive the free download links.

When you take inventory and determine which seeds are still good, you’ll likely realize that you have a lot more seeds than you thought. But that’s not a bad thing because, as mentioned above, they can keep for several years. You can also give away the seeds that you no longer want to grow or have too many of. That’s good karma that runs both ways, because someone else may have seeds that you are having trouble finding.

Not only does taking inventory shorten your shopping list, it also reminds you that you should exercise restraint when ordering. That way, you won’t wind up with an overabundance of seeds and nowhere to plant them.


Packets of saved seeds

Before you start ordering seeds, take stock of what you already have. You might find that you have plenty of seeds left over from previous gardening seasons.


Browse Seed Catalogs Consciously

Seed catalogs make us want things that — until we saw them — we never knew we needed. So let’s talk about seed catalogs and how to minimize the damage to our wallets.

The majority of catalogs show up between Thanksgiving and the week after Christmas, and that is no accident. It’s the perfect time for companies to put their products in front of our faces, as we begin to wind down for the holidays and kick our feet up.

Seed catalogs can be very educational with a lot of great information. In addition to details about the species, cultivar or variety of plant you are looking at, there is often advice more broadly on gardening practices. Seed company websites will have even more useful resources and information that could not fit in print. 

If you don’t get all the seed catalogs in the mail that you would like to browse, you can visit a seed company’s website to request that a seed catalog be delivered. Another option is to do all of your seed shopping online.

The paper-free option is great, but if there was ever a time to make an exception and receive something in print, it’s hard to beat a seed catalog. 

Whether browsing a hardcopy catalog or online, be conscious that the images you see are probably the best those varieties will ever look. Those are professionally done photos of vegetables, fruits and flowers grown in ideal conditions. Plus, the descriptions by professional copywriters really make us want to buy those seeds and have those plants.

Don’t make the mistake of just buying with your eyes — use your brain too. Exercise as much restraint as you can, know your growing limitations, and don’t order more than you need.


Stack of seed catalogs

Seed companies start sending out catalogs with eye-catching photographs and professionally written descriptions around the holiday season. It’s the perfect time to rest from the festivities and start planning next season’s garden.


The Different Types of Seed Companies

Many seed companies are generalists, selling a little bit of everything. They are one-stop shops where you can get all of your seed shopping done in one order, if you choose. 

Others are specialists that excel at just a few crops, like certain species of flowers or vegetables. Specialists should be the authorities on their focus crops and on the cutting edge when it comes to diversity and pest- and disease-resistance. So there’s a lot to be said for dividing up your buying among companies that specialize in certain areas. 

In some cases, a seed company’s specialty is that it is local: It’s raising seeds that are adapted for your region’s growing conditions. As opposed to big companies — which source their seeds from many farms from all over, including from overseas — small companies are often small-farm-based. These small companies grow out and save seeds right on their own farms or in cooperation with other local farms and regional growers. 

San Diego Seed Company, for instance, trials and grows seeds on a 1-acre farm and partners will nearby farms to produce even more of their Southwest-adapted seed varieties. (You can learn all about San Diego Seed Company and the importance of regional seed companies to seed diversity by listening to my recent conversation with founder Brijette Peña.)


Brijette Peña and San Diego Seed Company employees

Brijette Peña (holding the cat) founded San Diego Seed Company to offer organic seeds adapted to the Southwest. Her small team was busy in 2020 keeping up with seed orders. (photo: Courtesy of San Diego Seed Company)


Many smaller seed companies specialize in organic seeds, which are raised with the same practices used to grow organic produce, free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. (For more on the process behind organic seed growing, and insights into why buying organic is better for the environment, you can listen to my conversation with High Mowing Organic Seeds founder Tom Stearns.)


Joe Lamp'l and Tom Stearns at High Mowing Seed Company

Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds is a passionate and eloquent advocate for the benefits of avoiding chemicals and growing seeds organically.


How to Know a Seed Company Is a Reputable Source

When I want to know if a seed company that I have never ordered from before is a trusted source, I turn to experienced seed starters and my trusted gardening friends. I ask them where they get their seeds, garlic bulbs and certified seed potatoes from. You can’t go wrong tapping into their wisdom. 


Expanding Your Horizons

I don’t intend to dissuade you from buying a seed variety that really has you excited. If it is suited to growing in your region and you have the space to plant it, then, by all means, go for it.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and to just grow what we know. But if we don’t expand what we grow, we don’t grow ourselves. As Niki Jabbour recommends for garden planning: Grow something fun, something new, and something tried and true.

Heirloom vs. Hybrid Seeds

If you are planning on saving seeds from what you grow to plant in future seasons, it’s important to know the difference between heirloom and hybrid seeds.

A hybrid seed is one that comes from the first generation of an intentional cross between parent plants of different varieties to produce that specific outcome. If you plant out the seed from that first-generation hybrid, it will not be true to seed. That is to say, it will not be identical to its parent plant. That is not a bad thing, necessarily, but it’s worth noting, to manage your expectations.

Hybrid seeds can be a great choice if you are looking for certain qualities such as disease resistance, heat or cold tolerance, uniformity, large harvests, and consistency in how or when they ripen.

Heirloom seeds come from plants that have been passed down for multiple generations and have a story behind them. Typically, an heirloom variety is around 50 years old — though some say it takes more or less time to qualify as an heirloom.

Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, which means saved seeds grow to be true to seed. Saving seeds from open-pollinated varieties is fun — and it saves you a lot of money.

The reasons I love heirloom varieties are the stories, the color, the flavor and the diversity. However, heirlooms do not have built-in traits that make them more disease resistant or uniform, like hybrids, so they can be more challenging to grow.


Sow True Seed Sign

Some seed companies sell heirloom seeds that come from plants that have been passed down for multiple generations and have a story behind them. (photo: Jordan Brannock Photography)


Certified Organic Seeds vs. Conventional Seeds

Certified organic seed must comply with U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for organic growing. Raising organic seeds is a much more expensive and labor-intensive process, but when you buy that seed and put it into the ground, you’ll know that it is free of the synthetic inputs that are typical of non-organic seeds.

I happily pay an extra dollar or so more per pack to support organic seed companies and their efforts to provide their products in a more environmentally responsible way. 

Non-GMO vs. GMO Seeds

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” and a GMO seed comes from a plant with genes that have been modified in a lab. GMO seeds (such as Roundup Ready soybeans and corn) are produced exclusively for commercial agriculture. 

Many companies state in their catalogs and on their seed packets that their products are non-GMO. Others don’t say so, but you can rest assured that the seeds are, in fact, non-GMO. That’s because GMO seeds are not available to home gardeners. For now, at least, gardeners don’t have to give GMO seeds any thought. 

Free Sources for Seeds

Social media: If you put the word out on social media that you are looking for a certain type of seed, chances are, someone will answer your call. Gardeners are givers, and we love to share our seeds, plants and cuttings. 

Seed libraries: Many traditional libraries have embraced seed libraries. With your library card, you can “check out” seeds to plant in your garden the same way you would check out a book. Some libraries ask (but don’t require) that you save seeds to bring back to contribute to the seed library.

Seed swaps: Often held at county fairs and expos, seed swaps are events where seed savers share and trade seeds. You may also find seed swaps by mail in the back of farming newspapers and gardening magazines, or on Craigslist. You can exchange your saved seeds for something you’d like, but if you don’t have any to give, that’s fine too. Many seed savers are happy to share if you supply a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Save your own seeds: To ensure you’ll always have seeds of the open-pollinated varieties that you love to grow, you can learn to save seeds. As I’ve mentioned, seed saving is a fun activity that saves a ton of money. You’ll have more seeds than you could possibly grow, which means you’ll have extras for seed swaps or to give away.


Seed Library

Seed libraries are a great way to obtain seeds for free. (photo: Brendan O’Reilly)


More Seed Buying Tips

Plan for Succession Planting

Don’t just think about the upcoming season when ordering seeds — think of what to grow once spring-planted crops have run their course. 

Succession planting keeps garden space in production full time: Every time a plant is harvested or removed, fill in the gap with something to take its place.

You don’t need to put off ordering seeds that you intend to plant in summer or fall. If stored in a cool, dry place, the seeds will keep until you are ready to plant. 

If you wait to order, the seeds you want may sell out before you can get your hands on them. Also, placing one big order will save you money on shipping costs, which can add up if you place multiple orders over a year. 

Buy in Bulk

When buying seeds, you can benefit from economies of scale: The price per seed or the price per ounce goes way down the more you buy. For example, a certain variety of seeds that costs $2 for a pack of 20 may cost just $3 for a pack of 100.

You don’t want to end up with more seeds than you need, but you can benefit from bulk buying if you plan ahead. If you know a seed variety will store well for years to come, you can buy in bulk once and be set for several growing seasons. Or, you can get together with fellow gardeners to make one big order, saving on shipping costs and then divvying up the seeds.

You can make a bulk order of seeds last even longer if you store the seeds in a refrigerator or freeze them. 

Grow Your Grocery List

Growing what you like to eat starts with ordering seeds of varieties you know you’ll use in your kitchen. Seeds quickly pay for themselves when you grow the produce that you otherwise would be buying from the grocery store.

Buy Herbs And Flowers at the Same Time

While vegetables and your edible garden may be top of mind while placing a seed order, don’t neglect herbs and flowers. If you go back another time to order herb and flower seeds, you’ll be paying for shipping again and you may miss out on discounts offered when placing a large order.

Don’t Hesitate to Call

If you can’t find the answers that you are looking for on a seed company’s website, don’t hesitate to call and ask. Seed companies are usually staffed by passionate gardeners who are happy to help. And if you are unsure about a particular seed company, getting someone on the phone can give you a better impression of whether the seed vendor is a reliable source.

A Small Selection of Reputable Seed Companies

  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a cooperatively owned seed company that specializes in heirloom seeds and other open-pollinated seeds with an emphasis on vegetables, flowers, and herbs that grow well in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. 
  • Sow True Seed in Asheville, North Carolina, carries open-pollinated, heirloom and organic vegetable, herb and flower seeds.
  • High Mowing Organic Seeds in northern Vermont is Tom Stearns’ farm-based seed company. High Mowing Organic Seeds provides both home gardeners and commercial growers more than 600 heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid varieties of vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seed. Enter code JGSEEDS for 10% off orders of $50 or more at High Mowing Seeds.
  • San Diego Seed Company is Brijette Peña’s Southern California-based organic seed producer and seller. Principally, the company sells heirloom vegetables, but it also carries herb and flower seeds, all adapted for the Southwest. 
  • Fruition Seeds in Upstate New York is a Northeast seed company with 400-plus varieties adapted for a cold, short season. 
  • Redwood Seeds provides organic heirloom and open-pollinated varieties for the Northwest. Their catalog has 200 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and grains, all produced in California.
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds is an employee-owned company in Maine with a strong reputation for a really good product. Johnny’s has highly curated and highly researched varieties. They do a great job providing details on the varieties and information to support growers.
  • Pinetree Garden Seeds in Maine sells budget packs:  Smaller packs with fewer seeds for a cheaper price. This is great for home gardeners who need far fewer than the 30 to 50 seeds that typically come in a pack.
  • Park Seed, headquartered in South Carolina, has been in the seed business for over 150 years. It remains one of America’s oldest and largest mail-order seed companies with more than 1,000 varieties of vegetable, herb and flower seeds in their inventory.
  • Territorial Seed Company is a mid-size company based in Cottage Grove, Oregon, with quality products and many organic options. They specialize in seeds suited to growing in the Northwest but their seeds do well anywhere.
  • Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa was founded by a husband and wife team to capture and preserve seed diversity for future generations. They collect seeds that have been passed down and save not only the seeds, but the stories behind them as well.
  • Totally Tomatoes is a company that specializes in tomato plants and seeds — though they do offer peppers, other vegetables and herbs as well.


Tom Stearns

Tom Stearns, Founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds has no problem jumping in to lend a hand whenever and wherever he can help. It’s reassuring to know that you are supporting a company that maintains a close connection to their product.


What are your seed shopping tips? Let us know in the comments below.

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Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 33: Savvy Seed Catalog Shopping

Episode 45: Succession Planting: Practical Tips for Growing More Food

Episode 78: Why Buy Organic Seeds: Fixing a Broken Food System, with Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds

Episode 110: Why Mulch Matters in Every Garden

Episode 125: Saving Seeds: The Basics, the Benefits and Beyond

Episode 182: Organic Urban Seed Farming, with San Diego Seed Company

joegardener Seed Starting Charts

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Know if Seeds Are Still Good 

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Save Tomato Seeds 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. Relaunching at the end of January 2021.

joegardenerTV YouTube

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Pinterest

joegardener Twitter

Growing a Greener World® 


GGW Episode 911: High Mowing Organic Seeds: The Power of a Seed to Change the World

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*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, and Wild Alaskan Seafood Box. These companies are either Brand Partners of and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

0 Responses to “187-The Informed Seed Shopper: What to Know Before You Buy”

  • John Longard says:

    Thanks for the seed buying info. I found a seed company that is directly north of me in N. KY. The price was right, but customer service was less than helpful. I had ordered Aunt Molly’s ground cherries but when I tasted the 1st one it wasn’t sweet, it was sour. At first he thought I was wrong. His company couldn’t have made a mistake. I sent a picture of it to Niki Jabbour and she identified it as yellow tomatillo. So I emailed him her diagnosis. He did say he was going to review some of the folks he buys seeds from. That was it. I told him they weren’t a total loss. I could still use them. He asked me about over a month after the conversation started to let him know what I wanted to do. I selected a different seed for a fall planting. I didn’t get any reply back, but about 3 weeks later I got the replacement seeds. This has happened more than once with this company.However, more disturbing was his reaction to his governor’s temporary shutdown of stores that sell seeds due to violations of covid guidelines. He went very public with his protest. At that time I followed him on Facebook. He posted a picture of him and a few of his employees working indoors handling bare root plants. There was no masking nor any social distancing. This told me he didn’t really care about his employees. That’s it.BTW, another way to get free seeds is to ask for them from family for Christmas.Merry Christmas!!!

  • Joe Lamp'l says:

    Hi, John. Customer service is a big deal. I don’t know why some companies just don’t get that. Thanks for your real-life example of this. You always have great contributions to the subject of the week.
    I hope santa is good to you this year with more free seeds and I hope you have a Merry Christmas. I’ll be seeing you here again soon and I look forward to that.

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