Thursday, March 29, 2012

Favorite Seed Catalog Companies

As promised, I’m listing my favorite seed catalogs and some varieties I would recommend from them.  Although I’ve tried seeds from a number of companies over the last decade, these five companies have been the most consistent with delivery, germination quality, and reasonable pricing. All have signed the Safe Seed Pledge or have made a statement reflecting their position.

Abundant Life seeds
PO Box 279
Cottage Grove, Oregon 97424

Abundant Life Seeds had been in the business of “protecting the genetic diversity of rare and endangered seeds since 1975” with their operation in Saginaw, Oregon.  But in 2003, a devastating fire destroyed their offices, the seed packing facility, and much of their seed inventory.  Through the intervention of Tom and Julie Johns, owners of Territorial Seed Company, seed production has been increasing every year at the certified organic London Springs Farm in Oregon, with most of the seeds now USDA Certified Organic.  This years’ catalog is the biggest yet as quantities of many seeds have increased enough to offer them again.
I’ve grown their tomato ‘Czech Select’ and ‘Fargo Yellow Pear’ from the 2006 catalog.  I’ll be looking at all the new choices in the Spring 2012 catalog.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Road
Mansfield, Missouri 65704

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds was started by Jere Gettle in 1998 at the age of 17.  Jere had planted his first garden at the age of 3, and now at over 30 years of age, his company carries one of the largest selections of 19th century seeds including many Asian and European varieties.  A large number of seeds come to him from folks whose families have handed down heirlooms over generations, and hope to have them now preserved by spreading the seeds to other gardeners through Baker Creek. 

Jere is deeply involved in the stand against genetically modified seeds and will only sell open-pollinated and non-patented seeds.  All of the seeds are in the public domain which means you have the right to save the seeds without being sued by companies that might find their patented genes in your crops.    

Last year was the first time I bought from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, after seeing the catalog at a friend’s house and ordering my own copy right away.  Page after page of professionally photographed close-ups of the vegetables are the highest quality you’ll see in any seed catalog.  And the descriptions are brief, but enough to distinguish among the varieties.  Perhaps my favorite part of buying from Baker Creek is that the prices per packet are low enough—averaging about $2.50 per packet—that I can order a good variety without breaking my seed budget.  And the packets themselves are stunning in black with a high quality photograph of the vegetable in full-size and full color on the front.  You’ll know a Baker Creek seed packet immediately when you see it.  From the seeds I grew out last year, I would recommend:  Cucumber “Marketmore 76”, Wonderberry, Squash “Jumbo Pink Banana”, Tomato “Green Grape” and Tomato “Cherokee Purple”

Bountiful Gardens
18001 Shafer Ranch Road
Willits, CA 95490

Bountiful Gardens was started in 1982 through Ecology Action, a non-profit organization that was created in 1971 during the first wave of interest in learning how to live more ecologically sound lifestyles.  John Jeavons soon joined the organization to explore alternative ways of growing food, and subsequently developed the “Biointensive” method of gardening based on the work of Alan Chadwick who developed the “Biodynamic/French Intensive” method of sustainable gardening.  John has taken his farming method all over the world to developing countries where mini-farms are supporting entire families, villages and cultures. 

Fast forward 40 years to our new gardening and food Renaissance and you will find Bountiful Gardens thriving, with a catalog in full color; printed on recycled paper.   Prices for the seed packets have stayed low, averaging $2.00-$2.50 per packet and there are a lot more varieties to choose from compared to the first black-and-white catalog I bought seeds from many years ago, including a very extensive selection of Cover Crops, Grains, Fibers and Oil Crops“Teff” is a great grain to try for beginners.  It’s an ancient Ethiopian grain; the smallest in the world, that grows with delicate foliage that kitties love to hide in during the summer and feathery seed heads that tiny finches love to eat in the winter.  The newest additions to the catalog are the Theme Gardens for the home or school garden, and includes such themes as:  Chinese Herbal Medicine Collection, Tomato Rainbow Collection, Salsa Collection, Shady Garden Collection, Edible Flower Collection, Tasty Tea Collection and Italian Kitchen Garden.  I want to try one of these collections this year but am having a hard time deciding which one!

Pinetree Garden Seeds
P.O. Box 300
New Gloucester, ME 04260

When I look over my garden notes, I find that many of the vegetables I grew around 2005-2011 came from Pinetree Garden Seeds.  I’m pretty sure the first catalog came to me by my friend, Virginia, up in the back country of Mendocino County and I’m so glad I gave them a try.  The company was started in 1979 by Dick Meiners who, along with his wife Donna, built it into an impressive operation with dedicated and knowledgeable staff offering hundreds of vegetable and flower seed varieties as well as books, soap making supplies, gardening products and more.  After 32 years, Dick and Donna have passed the torch to the next generation, Melissa and Jef Emerson, with promises of more to come to interest the home gardener. 

I always enjoy looking through the Pinetree Garden Seeds catalog, with simple thumbnail photo’s and brief, but informative descriptions.  One of the most intriguing aspects of the catalog is the Foreign Vegetable section where vegetable seeds are grouped by Asian, Continental, French, Italian, Latin-American and Middle Eastern.  It’s great place to find unusual varieties not often seen in most catalogs.  Among all of the varieties I’ve tried from Pinetree Garden Seeds, these were some of my favorites:  Onion ‘Bunching Heshiko’, Onion ‘Red Wing’, Turnip ‘Golden Ball’, Pumpkin ‘Baby Bear’, Pepper ‘Anaheim’, Radish ‘French Breakfast’, and Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights’.

One thing of note is that Pinetree Garden Seeds did not sign the Safe Seed Pledge this year, although they have signed it in the past.  It’s not that they don’t support many of the concepts of the pledge; they feel it’s not strong enough and have created their own statement reflecting their position.

 “We sell no seed that has been developed using genetic manipulation. We do not view technologies as being good or bad things in themselves, but people can certainly employ them in pernicious ways. We also think that developing countries are best served, focusing on the agricultures that they have the material and manpower for. Not some Western notion that ignores indigenous materials and tastes.”

“Moreover, Pinetree has signed the Safe Seed Pledge in the past but has chosen not to this year because we do not feel it is worded strongly enough and is used more as a tool for marketing than a political statement. More than promise not to “knowingly” sell or buy GM seeds, Pinetree promises not to sell or buy them. Period.”

Territorial Seed Company
P.O. Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR97424-0061

I started ordering seed from Territorial Seed Company in 2006 after finding their colorful catalog at Spare Time Nursery on a trip through Willets, California.  Founder Steve Solomon ran the first catalog in 1979 with much of the early seed inventory grown in neighbors’ backyards.  By 1981, Territorial was shipping out over 100,000 mail-order catalogs and Steve was spending most of his life submerged in the business. 

In 1985, and advertisement ran in the local newspaper ''... mail order seed company in Lorane for sale.''  Steve had made the decision to return to a simpler lifestyle.  The ad was seen by Tom and Julie Johns who felt taking on the business would fit their self-sufficient lifestyle and commitment to organic gardening.  They bought the company and in 1987 added the 44 acres at London Springs to research and evaluate varieties to include in the catalog.  Today, Territorial Seed Company is a leader in the organic agriculture movement as it moves squarely into the mainstream market. 

I’ve always had good luck with growing seeds from Territorial Seed Company and appreciate the “sampler” size they have available for the small gardener.  I also like that there is a basic description on the front of the seed packets, with more detailed instructions on the back.  Among my favorite varieties that they carry are Kale ‘Nero Di Toscana’, Corn ‘Honey & Cream’, Lettuce ‘Nevada’(my favorite lettuce), Pak Choi ‘Ching-Chiang’, Snow Peas ‘Sandy’, Pineapple Ground Cherry, Pumpkin ‘Jack Be Little’, and Zucchini ‘Black Beauty’.

This year I plan to try the new Grafted Vegetable Plants featured in the 2012 catalog.  I hadn’t heard of this before but it appears to be quite common in Asia and Europe and is gaining popularity in the U.S.  The plants being offered are all tomatoes with the exception of one eggplant.  I would be willing to try a grafted ‘Brandywine’ tomato because the seed-grown plants have not done well in my gardens.  I’ll update on this blog if I take the plunge.

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