Part 2 of 2 – Click here to read part 1, “”Old-Time Prices, Classic Varieties, Old-Fashioned Companies.”
Today’s rapidly growing selection of different kinds of garden seeds allows for an amazing variety of flavors and growing experiences. Growing heirloom varieties opens a new door into other cultures and bygone days.
Heirlooms – What does “heirloom” mean?
An “heirloom” variety simply means that it has been passed down within a family or a community for at least one hundred years, by saving the seeds.
Heirloom varieties have been created on purpose by cross-breeding, or simply discovered as a “sport,” which means that it just kind of happened, and someone noticed it and saved the seed.
Many heirloom varieties are named after the person who first passed them down – “Dr. Wyche’s Yellow” “Aunt Ruby’s German Green,” or “Grandma Josie’s Amish White” tomatoes, for instance, and “Grandpa Ott’s” morning glories.
Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash seeds were shared with Seed Savers Exchange with a neighbor of Thelma Sanders in Iowa–Miss Thelma could sure grow some tasty squash!
Others are named after the community that passed them down, like “Amish Paste” and “Cherokee Purple” tomatoes. Many varieties with “German” in their name came from Amish and Mennonite communities. Amishland Heirloom Seeds sells seeds that are collected, grown and saved in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Some are named after their country of origin, like Russian Red Kale, which was brought from Siberia to Canada by Russian traders around 1885.
Territorial Seeds offers heirloom, organic, and hybrid varieties that are specifically selected to grow in our maritime Pacific Northwest climate. We like Territorial, but they are often more expensive than other seed suppliers.
Our favorite multi-purpose seed supplier is Pinetree Seeds, a family owned business in Maine (superseeds.com). They have a lot of unusual heirlooms, and their prices are great. We especially like the fact that they offer inexpensive packets that have fewer seeds in them, so we can experiment with more varieties for the same amount of money.
We get most of our imported Italian heirloom seeds from Seeds from Italy (growitalian.com). More and more seed companies are offering Italian heirloom seeds, as people discover their flavor and quality. We particularly love their turnips, radishes, beets, and chard.
Heirlooms, although fascinating to grow and delicious to eat, can be trickier to grow than modern hybrids. Their plants can be huge and sprawling, and their yield can be lower than hybrids. They often take longer to ripen. They can be harder to transport and store. They often have irregular shapes, which can make packing them a bit of a challenge.
But they are well worth it!
We grow mostly heirloom varieties on our farm, but we also grow a few hybrids, just to be safe. We do our best to make sure that we grow heirloom varieties that are suited to our climate.
Every year, more kinds of heirloom varieties from around the world are being discovered by seed explorers and brought back to the U.S., to be bred and either traded or sold commercially.
Our own favorite heirloom summer squash are Italian Tromboncino (at right), Romanesco and Yellow Crookneck (both below). Our favorite heirloom winter squash is Thelma Saunder’s Sweet Potato Squash (above), and our favorite cucumber is the delicious, crispy brown skinned Poona Kheera from India, shown here.
Our favorite snap bean is tender, sweet Dragon’s Tongue (shown above), and our favorite lettuce is Flashy Speckled Trout Back, also known as “Freckles” (shown below.) Our favorite tomato is Striped German. All grow quite nicely right here in south Thurston County!
Overall, the best prices on heirloom seeds are from Baker Creek (rareseeds.com) and Seed Savers Exchange. Peaceful Valley Organic Seeds (groworganic.com) has good prices on bulk heirloom lettuce seed.
Generally, your best bet to save money is to pool with other gardeners and buy in bulk. A lot of the cost of seeds is in packaging. Most seeds last for years, if they are protected from moisture and heat.
The more you grow heirlooms, the more you want to dive into the stories of the families and communities who carefully saved the seeds for generations!
Johnny’s also has a great selection of culinary and medicinal herbs.
Baker Creek’s “Marsh Mallow” is both a lovely tall perennial flower, vegetable, and a medicinal herb. And yes, the root was used to make the original marshmallow candies!
Many companies now sell Certified Organic seeds, and the number of varieties increase every year. The quality of organic seeds is also improving over the years.
Baker Creek’s seeds aren’t certified organic, but they are all heirloom and naturally grown. All heirlooms are non-GMO, for people who care about that.
Specialty Seeds – Tomatoes, Beans, and Wildflowers
There are two really great companies that specialize in tomato seeds, that also offer some other vegetable seeds. These companies do not sell GMO seeds.
Totally Tomatoes has an amazing variety of tomato seeds and tomato plants, as well as a nice assortment of other vegetable seeds and plants. They have every kind of color and size imaginable, from heirlooms to hybrids. Their seeds germinate, grow and produce very well.
Their printed catalog has a stapled insert that has lots of tomato and other vegetable seed packets for $1.25 each, or $1.00 each for six or more packets. I have tried a lot of these varieties, and they are really great. You can click into the descriptions on their website of these inexpensive seeds.
At this low price, it’s fun to try lots of different kinds! You can even get twenty seeds of their gourmet heirloom tomato assortment at that price. And their seeds store well from year to year, if you keep them away from moisture and heat.
You can order a copy of their catalog on their website, to get to those special deals.
This year, I’m looking forward to trying their new “42 Day” tomatoes! Wow!
Tomato Growers Supply Company is another great source. This family business has 500 varieties of tomato and pepper seeds that germinate and grow well. They also have eggplant and tomatillo seeds.
If you are looking for a different kind of oval canning tomato, try their pink Grushovka. It grows nicely on a small plant, if you are short on space.
Vermont Bean has got a great selection of all different kinds of beans–from fresh snap beans, to runner beans, to soybeans, to shelling and drying beans. They also have a good variety of other vegetable seeds and plants.
If you love unusual wildflowers and classic garden favorites like zinnias and cosmos, you have to check out Wildseed Farms. Their seed prices are amazing, especially if you buy in bulk. Their catalog and website is full of lots of helpful information.
Special Help for Market Growers
Some seed companies offer special help, products, and services for market growers, especially beginning market growers.
Johnny’s Seeds is probably the best known of all of the market-oriented seed companies, with lots of good supplies and helpful tools for small scale market growers. They have really good customer support, and lots of heirloom and organic seeds, as well as lots of colorful and unusual varieties you won’t see anywhere else. They also have a good supply of medicinal herbs.
Harris Seeds has got a good selection of market-oriented vegetable, herb and flower seeds, as well as bare root plants and bulbs. They have good customer service. Their pansy selection is absolutely gorgeous.
HPS Seeds also has a really big selection of vegetable, herb, and flower seeds for market growers, with really good bulk prices.
Both Harris and HPS have great seeds for bedding plant sales, and HPS has nice pre-printed markers (“pixie stakes”) for bedding plants.
HPS also has a good selection of perennial herbs and flowers.
It’s always best to order early, especially when dealing with smaller seed companies. Their supplies are limited, and you don’t want to miss out on a new adventure in gardening!
Please feel free to ask a question or post a comment below. We’re all lifelong learners here!
Part 2 of 2 – Click here to read part 1, “Old-Time Prices, Classic Varieties, Old-Fashioned Companies.”