UC Master Gardeners of Monterey & Santa Cruz Counties
University of California
UC Master Gardeners of Monterey & Santa Cruz Counties

SEEDS - Dreaming your summer garden

Extended rainy days make me yearn for sunshine and my summer garden. I often use this time to sit by my wood stove and pour over seed catalogs to plan and visualize my garden. If you get a head start, planting from seed is much less expensive than buying starts for your vegetable beds and there is tremendous variety to grow unusual, ethnic or heirloom varieties you will never find in nurseries or grocery stores. Here's a quick guide to vegetable/herb/annual flower seed sourcing.

A few things to consider when choosing seed

Commercial vs. Boutique Sources

Growing commercial seed requires certain latitudes for some varieties to grow. Large companies such as Burpee and Park source from large commercial growers in China, Eastern Europe and US within appropriate latitude ranges. Smaller, boutique seed companies such as Baker Creek and Bountiful Gardens contract with a network of farmers who grow seed on commission.

Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid

Open pollinated seeds breed true to seed. That means if you plant it, grow it and save seed from it, then plant the saved seed, you will get the same genetic characteristics as the parent plant in future generations. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated because the integrity of the seed is passed down through generations.

Hybrid, also known as “ F1,” are seeds intentionally crossed between two varieties of the same species. The resulting cross, or mix of genetic inputs, results in a unique variety with unique characteristics. If you plant a hybrid, grow a hybrid, save seed from a hybrid and then plant that saved seed, you will NOT get the same plant as the parent; it will revert to one or another of the original varieties that made up the crossed hybrid. See the table below for a summary of the differences between open-pollinated and hybrid seeds.

  Open-Pollinated (OP) Hybrid (F-1)
Seed Saving True-to-type year after year.* Must be purchased every year, does not breed true.
Diversity Wide ranging selection of varieties to choose from. Selection limited to commercially viable crops due to cost of production.
Genetic Implications Plants grown year after year adapt to local growing conditions. Maintains diversity in the gene pool of food plants. Bred for desirable characteristics such as disease resistance or unique size, color, growth habit etc.

* Some plants are “self-pollinating” others require 2 plants to set seed. Self-pollinating OP plants breed to the parent plant but those that require more than one plant to reproduce (i.e. male and female) have the potential to accidentally cross in your garden, creating an unintended hybrid.

Other questions about selecting seeds

GMO – Genetic engineering (GE) is a very expensive process and at this point, is reserved for large scale commodity crops like corn, soy and other grains. It probably won't be a problem for the home gardeners to differentiate GE seeds from non-GE seeds for some time but until labeling is required you won't really know. According to Monsanto's website, “In the United States, there are only two vegetables that have been developed by genetic modification: sweet corn and squash.” The best way to ensure you're getting non-GE seed is to buy open-pollinated, heirloom and/or organic seeds.

Fungicide-treated seeds.
Fungicide-treated – Some commercially available seeds come out of the package with a bright pink or blue fungicide coating. This is done to prevent the spread of seed and soil borne diseases. Certified organic seeds are never treated and it's rare that you will find home garden seeds treated this way. Clear labeling is required by law so look for an indication when you buy.

Where do I get them?

Local nurseries – The quick and easy way to pick up a packet of seed is to go to the local nursery or hardware/box store on the rack. Check the package for hybrid(F-1) vs. Open Pollinated (OP). It's easy to find a broad selection of vegetables, herbs and flowers in garden centers by Renee's Garden and Botanical Interests which both sport gorgeous illustrations and detailed planting advice. Sometimes you'll find a Seeds of Change organic seed rack and in the Monterey Bay Area.

Catalogs and websites – By far the greatest variety will come from a little homework and it's fun to browse through the catalogs or surf seed descriptions. Paper catalogs are often free but websites are always available. Here is a fairly complete list of US seed companies followed by some specific sourcing tips. 

Heirloom tomatoes.
Heirlooms – Heirloom vegetables are old-time varieties, open-pollinated instead of hybrid, and saved and handed down through multiple generations of families and are often selected for exceptional flavor. Heirlooms are always open pollinated so you can save seed year to year and adapt the plant to your yard and share with neighbors. Heirlooms come with interesting origin stories and may be unusual additions to the dinner table that can't be found in stores.

Just a few of the many heirloom seed sources:

Gai Lan or Chinese broccoli.
Ethnic/Culinary – Sometimes it's hard to find ingredients for ethnic cuisine you like to cook. I love to grow daikon radish tat-soi and shiso for my Japanese-American step-mother, crops I can rarely find in stores. I love to grow Italian eggplant and Spanish peppers. Try these catalogs for hard to find ethnic and regional seed varieties. Most heirloom seed sources have some ethnic specialties.

Ethnic/Culinary sources:

USDA Organic Label.
Organic – Certified organic seeds are grown in the region where they were produced using organic production methods, which is good for the environment. However, you can grow an organic garden using organic methods without using organically produced seeds. Many seed companies offer organic seed varieties along-side non-organic so you have to keep your eyes peeled for that organic icon or label.

Organic-only sources:

Broad Selection one-stop-show catalogs  Sometimes one doesn't have the time to review 50 websites to find a packet of radish seed. Here are a few broad selection catalogs that make it easy to find what you're looking for in one place.

Broad selection sources:

Now that I have them, how long will my seeds last? Can I use last years' seed?

That depends on what kind of seed you're using and how it is stored. For example, lettuce and onion seeds are usually only good for 1-2 years if stored properly, tomato seeds can last 10 years. Store seeds in a cool dry environment, a tightly sealed zip lock bag or jar in the freezer is ideal. However, LET THE CONTAINER COME TO ROOM TEMP BEFORE YOU OPEN THE JAR OR BAG so condensation doesn't get the seeds wet. I keep mine in jars in a cool, dark closet and that works for me. 

Germination test for seed viability.
If you want to check germination viability for saved seed you can do a quick germination test. Place 10 seeds an even distance apart on a damp paper towel. Roll up the towel and place in a plastic bag. Leave the damp, rolled towel in a warm spot in the kitchen for two to five days, checking every few days. This technique works for most seeds.


Reference links






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Posted on Monday, February 13, 2017 at 4:00 PM
  • Author: Delise Weir
  • Contributor: Growing Vegetables Subject Group
  • Editor: Kamille Hammerstrom

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