The promise of abundance- choosing seeds

Greetings Sierra Gardeners!

My name is Amanda and I’m helping Edy out by writing blog posts each month about gardening on a home scale.  Several years ago, I started the Food Love Farm to teach kids more about growing their own food, and now I’m focusing more on growing our family’s homestead (ie our garden and chickens).  It’s definitely a transition to think about growing a home garden when you’ve been focused on growing on a larger scale, so I will be learning this season with you!

One of the things that’s really wonderful about the winter months is dreaming about your summer garden.  This is the time of year to scheme, plan and imagine all the food you can grow.  Luckily for Sierra Gardens participants- many starts are provided by the program.  But this doesn’t mean you can’t get down and dirty with some seed catalogues and play.

Just a quick note on seeds- in this article I aim to share good sources of quality seeds, the differences in annuals and perennials and what the heck OP and F1 actually mean!  But something that feels more important than all of the practical information is simply the fact that seeds are magic.  Truly!  My seed mentor Rowen White says “Every seed we plant is a tiny loving prayer in action.”  These mysterious prayers are the basis of everything we eat (and everything our food eats too!) and all of the seeds that provide sustenance for humankind have been passed down for generations.  What’s on your table is the result of thousands of years of selection and care from the ones who came before us.  If you decide to save seed from your garden this year (which I hope you will!) you can participate in this ritual as old as agriculture.

One more moment of waxing poetic before we get to the info. Seeds are incredibly giving!  You plant one tiny seed and it grows into a whole plant, which makes flowers and potentially hundreds, if not thousands more seeds!  Isn’t that incredible?  We can learn a lot from seeds.

Okay, enough with the dreamy ode to seeds- down to business!  Now, once you have ordered or purchased seed from a seed company- they will send you catalogues for life.  This may sound terrible but for many- getting the first seed catalogues of the year is really exciting.  At least in our house it is!

Seed companies can be really different from one another- some are family owned, some focus on unusual varieties and some are specifically tailored to market growers.

Some seed companies I enjoy and recommend are:

Seed Savers Exchange (really interesting varieties- and encompasses a huge network of seed savers)

High Mowing Seeds (Organic varieties for market and home gardeners)

Territorial Seed Company (geared towards home gardeners)

Wild Garden Seed (lots of neat greens and interesting breeding projects)

Redwood Organic Seeds (adapted varieties for Northern CA)

Adaptive Seeds (only sells small OP grower produced seeds- high integrity)

Siskiyou Seeds (another small family run seed company from the PNW focusing on quality)

Hudson Valley Seed (from the east coast- check out their art packs for wonderful gifts!)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rare, weird fun stuff, their catalogue is a hoot)

Fedco Seeds (these folks have everything!  and their catalogue is not flashy but is great bathroom reading)

Johnny’s Selected Seeds (the standard for organic market growers-  many strong hybrid varieties that are consistent)

I know- that’s so many options!  I may have gotten carried away.  But that’s what seeds do, they get you all excited and the next thing you know you’re pulling up more blackberries figuring out what you can plant next!

But how do I know what to plant?

Here’s a quick rundown on the basics.

Annual Plants (usually have this designation (A) in the catalogue) are plants that live for only one season.  Most of the stuff we have in our summer gardens is considered an annual.  Familiar annuals are plants such as: tomatoes, peppers, onions, basil, squashes, cucumbers, kale and lettuces.  Some plants could live longer than one year but our climate kills them off with the cold weather.  Here tomatoes are a one season crop, but in some tropical places they can live for years (aka be perennial).

Perennial Plants (usually have the designation (P) in the catalogue) are plants that can live forever.  Ok- maybe not forever, but for many years!  Examples of common perennials are: most landscape plants, fruit trees, berries, asparagus, artichokes, roses etc.  Many popular herbs are perennial such as rosemary, thyme, sage, and chives.  Because perennials take a little while to get established, you usually don’t get a great crop until a few years in.  *But, once they are established perennial plants often are some of the earliest food in the garden and certainly some of the most reliable.

Biennial Plants are worth a quick mention.  These guys have a 2 year life cycle- Plants such as root veggies like carrots and beets spend the first year putting energy into the roots, and then the second season they use that energy stored in the root to make seeds.  Usually we treat this type of crop as an annual and eat it before it decides to make seeds!  Brassicas (kale family) are also biennials.  This is’t super important for your garden but it’s interesting to know- especially if you are interested in seed saving.

Other important things to know when looking for seeds:

OP stands for “Open Pollinated” – these are the seeds that you can easily save from your garden.  They are the result of natural processes using the help of insects, wind or birds to achieve pollination.

Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been kept the same over time over generations and has been passed down in a community or family with little change.  To be classified as an heirloom, the variety must be passed down for at least 50 years.  Many heirlooms have really neat stories associated with them.  An heirloom is always open pollinated, but an open pollinated seed is not always an heirloom.

Hybrid or F1 seeds are created through a controlled method of pollination that crosses two different species or types to create offspring that are quite vigorous and strong. A common example of this is the mule-a cross between a horse and a donkey.  Mules are strong and vigorous but sterile.  Many market farmers like hybrid varieties for their consistency and vigor, but you can’t save the seed and have to buy new each year.  (If you plant out the saved seed you get a weird genetic offspring from one of the parent types which usually are not so awesome on their own)

Genetically Modified (GM) or Genetically Engineered (GE) seeds are the product of engineering in a lab- where traits from a different kind of plant or animal can be physically put into another type to create resistance to pests, drought tolerance or added nutrition.  These seeds are patented by large corporations and there’s a lot of controversy over their potential environmental and health risks.  For the home gardener, GMOs aren’t really an issue because the primary market for these seeds is large commodity crops like soy, alfalfa and corn.

If you want to learn more about the story of seeds- there’s a great movie you can stream called Seed The Untold Story.


We are also extremely fortunate to have Rowen White, renowned seed keeper and educator here locally who offers many educational opportunities through the Sierra Seed Cooperative  which you can learn more about here.