It May Feel Like Winter, but It’s Time to Shop for Seeds

Resilience: It’s a vegetable-seed industry buzzword, and a mission — to breed genetically resilient varieties that stand up to pests, diseases and the rigors of a shifting climate.

Each resilient variety becomes a tiny, critical ingredient in a resilient seed system that supports agriculture, the foundation of a resilient food system.

And in the tumultuous 2020 seed-catalog season, resilience proved a valuable human trait as well, for seed company staff and their customers. Insights gleaned from that chaotic year of record sales can smooth the ground for the 2021 garden season, which officially begins this month, as new catalogs start appearing in mailboxes and online.

This time last time, no one could have seen it coming — sales spikes of as much as 300 percent that began immediately after a national emergency was declared on Mar. 13, echoing the World Health Organization pandemic declaration two days earlier.

“When many of us came back to the office Monday, we were astonished to see how many orders had come in,” said Joshua D’errico, marketing coordinator for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which has 47 years of sales history for comparison. “We thought it was a blip, but it wasn’t.”

Seed companies have worked overtime, skipping summer breaks, to refine and strengthen their systems. Now, before we start madly browsing their catalogs, it’s our turn as home gardeners to fine-tune our processes. Here are some thoughts on how to shop smart, plus some favorite catalogs. Each one feels as welcome as a reunion with an old friend.

My seed-shopping and garden-planning season starts in the darkness of a cool, dry cupboard, where I store my leftover seed — imperfectly, I admit, but well enough to get a second year out of virtually everything except perhaps onion, which most viability charts say lasts only one year.

Despite all the preparations, no company can predict things like how many of last season’s new gardeners will order again, or if even more will show up for 2021.

In addition to the companies mentioned in this story — Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds and High Mowing Organic Seeds — small Northeastern standouts include Hudson Valley Seed, Turtle Tree Seed and Fruition Seeds.

It is hard to imagine a more cold-adapted bean or tomato than those from the North Dakota-based company Prairie Road Organic Seed.

The Pacific Northwest is one of the most favorable and productive seed-farming climates in the United States, so it’s no surprise that some exceptional companies have taken root there, including Adaptive Seeds, Siskiyou Seeds, Uprising Seeds and Wild Garden Seed.

For gardeners seeking heat-adapted seeds for Southeastern gardens (or Northerners wanting to try okra and greasy beans), I’d suggest Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Sow True Seed.

Companies serving niches with some of the toughest growing conditions also have my attention. Examples include Redwood Seed Company in Northern California, High Desert Seed and Gardens in high-altitude Colorado, Native Seed/SEARCH, a nonprofit in arid Arizona, and Snake River Seed Cooperative, in Idaho, focused on the Intermountain West.

Seed Savers Exchange is in Iowa, but its longtime mission as a nonprofit — the preservation of heirloom varieties — makes it a national resource. Some of its collection came by way of Glenn Drowns, of Sand Hill Preservation Center, also in Iowa. There is no online shopping cart, so expect old-school snail-mail ordering, but oh, the diversity.

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