Ask on almost any gardening forum about the seeds you should buy or even mention that you’ll be buying seeds, and you’ll find yourself inundated with responses. I frequently see folks making hybrid plants out to be evil, heirlooms to be the ultimate good, and recommendations to only buy from certain seed companies because they advertise their seed as “non-GMO”.
In reality, there’s a lot more nuance to it. What’s good for you, in your garden, will differ based on your goals.
So let’s dig in!
The first thing that we should address is that whole GMO thing. In the United States, there are a mere handful of crops that are commonly genetically modified: soybeans, corn, sugar beets, canola, and cotton. Some crops like potatoes, apples, and alfalfa have GMO varieties.
For the average home gardener or homesteader, you’d have to put in some effort to find and buy GMO seeds. If you’re purchasing seeds from a company that sells to home gardeners and you aren’t purchasing something like soybeans, then you can be fairly confident the seeds aren’t GMO.
I won’t tell you how you should feel about GMO crops – that’s all up to you. I do find the whole genetic-modification thing interesting in a very nerdy way, while I also appreciate the long, slow breeding methods that have been in use since farmers first saved seeds.
Is one better than the other? That depends on your situation! No seed type is good or bad – some simply aren’t right for your needs.
Heirloom seeds are varieties that will more-or-less breed true and have a history to them. You can save seeds from heirloom plants and expect to grow the same thing from them year after year.
Heirlooms have some downsides though: they are closely inbred for purity and were developed for very specific climates.
Tip: Choosing heirloom varieties favored in parts of the world with a similar climate to yours can give you the best results.
I personally favor French heirlooms due to a combination of flavor and a similar climate to my own.
Hybrid seeds are a mix of 2 plant varieties and can absolutely be a mix of 2 heirloom varieties. Breeders utilize the “hybrid vigor” of crossing 2 inbred varieties to make plants that are (ideally) superior to both parents.
Some seeds are nearly always hybrids, with sweet corn being king of that list.
A downside to hybrids (which can absolutely be an upside too!) is that they will not breed true. You can save the seeds, but you’ll end up with a lot of fun surprises. This can be a major pain if you have limited garden space and can’t waste it on less-than-ideal plants.
If, like me, you’re looking to develop genetically-diverse landraces then hybrids can quickly add to the genetic mix of your projects.
Tip: Hybrids are an excellent option for small gardens, new gardeners, or seed savers who want more genetic diversity.
If you’re a new gardener, you might be interested in reading my tips for your very first garden.
Open-pollinated (OP) seeds are naturally pollinated. They can be heirlooms or hybrids. While this natural pollination, in theory, can result in greater genetic diversity, it actually doesn’t if you’re purchasing from a seed company.
Seed companies sell particular varieties of seeds. If you receive seeds and they grow into different varieties than what you bought you probably won’t be very happy. You would probably leave negative reviews on the internet and maybe even call up the company’s customer service line and use some spicy language.
So what’s a seed company to do to keep you happy? Carefully isolate varieties so they’re being pollinated by only the same variety, of course! This makes the chance of the seeds not breeding true negligible which in turn means less screaming at customer service reps.
Tip: For the improved genetic diversity of open-pollinated seeds, you’ll want to seek out sources that don’t follow stringent isolation. Local seed savers are your best resource.
Landraces are animal breeds or plant varieties with diverse genetic pools. They are almost always region-specific. There are usually notable differences between individuals within a landrace.
Interestingly, heirlooms all started off as landraces. Over time, the landrace’s genetic diversity became whittled down farther and farther until all that remained was a true-breeding heirloom variety. This isn’t a good or bad thing.
They might not be too popular in the garden anymore, but landraces definitely can be worth it for some gardeners. If you don’t mind your plants being a bit like a box of chocolates (you never know what you’re going to get!), then landraces can lend their genetic diversity to help them thrive in your particular area, garden management style, and wider climate adaptation.
It can be a bit difficult to get your hands on landrace seeds. You can start off by creating a “grex”, basically a mix of many seed varieties that you want to grow, and then selecting the plants that thrive the most and taste the best each year.
It’ll take around 3 years of this very simple selection process before you finally have the basis of your own landrace.
Tip: Landraces are a great option for gardeners with a little extra space, people who are interested in breeding, or those wanting a more resilient garden.
Where I Buy My Seeds
No discussion on seeds would be complete without the author sharing their favorite seed companies, right? Right.
I’m loyal to a handful of seed companies and typically make purchases from them annually. One would think that I would have enough seeds by now… but I don’t think it’s possible to have too many.
In no particular order:
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds – Johnny’s caters to organic market growers and flower farmers. They carry both heirloom and hybrid seeds as well as new varieties they’ve developed on their farm. They do have a higher free shipping minimum ($200) which can be an issue if you’re just a little gardener. I primarily buy flower seeds from Johnny’s, but have also purchased many vegetable seeds too.
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – I’ve purchased an embarrassing amount of seeds from Baker Creek. I think a part of it is the free shipping without a minimum – I’m a sucker for that! However, I have had some seeds not be the variety they were labeled. Not a major issue for me, just a bit surprising to have cherry tomatoes instead of beefsteak!
- Territorial Seeds – Territorial stocks a wide variety of heirlooms and hybrids and develops their own varieties. Both their farm and their storefront are a short drive for me which means that their seeds are well-suited to my climate. I usually pick up anything that’s new and interesting to me from their storefront.
- Adaptive Seeds – Another Oregon-based seed company, I purchase dry beans and grains from them.
- Experimental Farm Network – This group is doing a lot of cool work, including breeding less common food crops and adapting plants to grow in different climate zones. I use them for breeder mixes and landrace seeds.