Sustainable Seed Starting and Sharing: A How-to Guide

Photograph courtesy of Nat Hookway

With the dawning of spring, our thoughts turn to planting and growing - and that means seeds!

There's nothing like watching seeds you started at home springing to life - the first signs of seed germination are a true wonder to behold.  In addition to being extremely satisfying, home seed starting is much cheaper than purchasing transplants, plus you can find plant varieties that your local nursery might not carry.

If it's your first time venturing out into the seed market, the number of options might seem overwhelming. A great way to narrow down your choices is to commit to sustainable seed sources right off the bat.

First Things First: Select the Right Seeds for Your Location

Our winter planning post stressed that understanding your climate is fundamental to choosing seeds that will grow into flourishing plants. Make sure you know your plant hardiness zone before moving forward with seed selection. Consider the average temperatures and humidity where you live. Do your plants need to be cold-hardy or is your climate warmer, subtropical even? Is it humid or more arid? Take these details into account as you select your seeds.

What Seed Characteristics Should You Consider?

As you explore your seed options, you'll notice a number of terms and phrases used to differentiate varieties.

  • If you see seed saving in your future, you'll want to go with open-pollinated
  • Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that have been saved and passed down through generational and community sharing.
  • If you're mainly focused on ensuring high yield and plant vigor, F1 Hybrids might be the best choice.
  • Other characteristics to consider include:
    • Varieties that resist specific pests and/or diseases
    • Seeds that hold up better in storage
    • Seeds for early-, mid- or late-season harvests

Before you purchase seeds, think about your ultimate garden project goals. For example, if you want to eat baby kale all season long, you should buy both early- and late-season varieties for multiple seed successions. If you're excited about pumpkin carving, make sure to choose a variety of pumpkin that is good for jack-o'-lanterns.

Choose Sustainable Seed Companies

While there are many seed companies to choose from, there are several organic, non-GMO companies that offer a diverse selection of vegetable, herb and flower seeds. Although all of these seed companies ship nationwide, some of them carry varietals that thrive in particular regions.

Fedco Seeds provides cold-hardy varieties of hybrids, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds shipped in season and offers membership in a cooperative to its customers.

High Mowing Organic Seed Company sells over 600 types of organic, non-GMO, heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seeds.

Hudson Valley Seed Library embraces the art of seeds with heirloom and open-pollinated varieties.

Seed Savers Exchange grows, saves and shares heirloom seeds as part of their non-profit mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds carries one of the largest selections of seeds from the 19th century, including many Asian and European varieties.

Native Seeds/SEARCH provides only open-pollinated varieties with a long, historical connection to the greater Southwest.

Seeds of Change sells only organic and non-GMO heirloom seed varieties and is dedicated to preserving varieties in danger of being lost to the "advances" of industrial agriculture.

Kitazawa Seed Company is the oldest seed company in America specializing in Asian vegetable seeds.

Clear Creek Seeds offers a wide variety of open-pollinated, non-GMO, non-treated, heirloom vegetable seeds.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sells over 700 varieties of vegetable, flower, herb, grain and cover crops seeds that perform well in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions, including many unusual Southern heirlooms.

Renee's Garden offers a selection of unusual vegetable, flower and herb seeds, including heirloom, organic, international hybrid and open-pollinated varieties.

Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply sells organic, non-GMO, open-pollinated and some hybrid vegetable seeds.

Johnny's Selected Seeds offers non-GMO organic, hybrid, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, as well as a limited selection of treated and primed seeds.

Row 7 Seeds sells non-GMO, organic seed produced in the US without chemicals and without utility patents.

Sowing Your Seeds

Are you ready to start seeding? These resources provide comprehensive walkthroughs for beginners and make for a great refresher as well:

Gardener's Supply Company: Here are some helpful tips for first-timers, including the best type of plants for beginners and how to time your efforts to maximize your transplanting success.

Mother Earth News: Check out these tips about which seed starting mix and containers to use and why, how much light and heat to give your seeds and what to expect from your seedlings as they progress.

Heirloom Organics: Follow these step-by-step instructions to find out how to soak and plant your seeds, how much water, light, food and space they need and when to transplant them.

New York Botanical Garden: (video) Follow along as Sonia Uyterhoeven from the New York Botanical Garden shows you how to start seeds indoors.

Happy Seeding!