Open seed catalog next to a cup of tea.

The days are short and the desire to sit on the couch while sipping a cup of hot cocoa is very strong!  Don’t just watch TV, however, with seed catalogs filling up your mailbox, it’s time to start planning your crops for next year!  (Okay, maybe watch a little TV too…even farmers need some time off 🙂  Once you know what you want to grow, however, you’ve got to figure out where to get your seeds from.  Picking a low quality company can be devastating for germination rates and yields!  Below are my suggestions for reliable seed companies for growers of all sizes in Central Appalachia.

I do the seed order every year for the Build It Up Backyard and Market Gardening Programs, which means I am ordering $700-$800 worth of seed, kind of on par with a small produce farm.  It’s much cheaper to buy seeds in bulk and then break them up into our own packets.  (BTW, if you need a lot of empty seed packets, this is my favorite source for them).  We support between 40-50 family gardens, a large school garden, and several community gardens with our seeds.

This is my fourth year ordering, and I’ve got a pretty good system down.  I thought I would share with you where I like to buy seeds, so you can get catalogs from these companies and check them out!

FedCo Seeds is where I get the majority of my seeds.  They don’t always have the varieties I want, but their prices can’t be beat when you order in bulk.  FedCo has a tiered discount system where the more you order, the bigger your discount gets.  At $300, you hit the 20% off discount, which means that their already low prices become almost impossible to beat.  Once you hit a discount level, you can get the same discount for the rest of the year, as long as subsequent orders are for more than $50 each. They also let you do group orders, so folks can bundle their orders together and get bigger discounts.  FedCo also tells you exactly where they get their seed from, from small organic family farms all the way up to the big seed conglomerates.  You can choose what kind of seed producers you want to support, and I appreciate this level of openness.  Also, whoever illustrates their catalogs is a hoot.  I’d get the catalog just to look at the pictures and read their sometimes whimsical descriptions of varieties.

Johnny’s Select Seeds is where I get the second level of purchases.  Johnny’s specializes in supplying seed to small-scale organic growers and they find and breed varieties with high productivity and disease resistance.  Innate disease resistance is critical when you grow organically, because our arsenal of treatments is much smaller than for conventional growers.  It’s better to prevent problems through good variety selection than try to treat disease on susceptible plants.  All this disease resistance, productivity, and plethora of baby vegetable varieties (cute tiny vegetables sell better!!) comes at a price.  I’m very selective about buying from Johnny’s but I know that it will be money well spent.  I purchase mostly disease resistant cucumbers, zucchini, winter squash, melons, peppers and tomatoes from them.  For some reason, they also have a really good deal on Adirondack Blue potatoes (50lbs for $32!!).  Love me some blue ‘taters!

For the last 5% of my seed purchases, I’m looking for regional things, like greasy beans, collards, and okra.  Bigger companies might carry one or two varieties of collards and okra, but you’ll never see the word “greasy” in front of “bean” outside of the south.  (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please try growing some next year…they really shouldn’t just be a secret in Appalachian culinary circles!)

These next three companies are based either in North Carolina or Virginia.  They are small mom and pop type operations that are really trying to preserve old southern and Appalachian heirloom varieties and also support local breeders who are developing new varieties that are best suited for our hot, incredibly humid summers.  That humidity is killer, especially for plants prone to fungal diseases (i.e. cucurbits and tomatoes).  Finding local companies that can provide locally adapted varieties is an all around great way to preserve traditional foodways and save yourself from powdery mildew induced heartache.

Sow True Seed.  Based out of Asheville, NC, this company provides a wonderful variety of locally adapted seeds for vegetables and herbs, as well as flowers for pollinators and mushroom plug kits.  I like to buy greasy beans, corn, garlic, cow peas, edamame, peppers, tomatoes and okra from Sow True.  Everything in Sow True’s catalog is open pollinated, meaning that if you save the seed, it’ll “sow true” the following year (provided you don’t accidentally cross it in your garden).

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  Based out of northern VA, this company is really into preserving almost extinct heirlooms while also providing a good selection of recently bred and disease resistant open pollinated varieties.  Cornell University and University of Arkansas both have organic crop variety breeding programs, and produce many of the new open pollinated varieties you see.  The SESE catalog is a mixture of old and new favorites, all picked because of their adaptability to southern climates.  I love their selection of collards, peanuts, beans, cowpeas, and okra!  (You can even buy cotton from them!  Never tried it, but it looks cool!)

Commonwealth Seed Growers.  Based out of southwest VA, this company is very small, consisting of a husband and wife and their children.  They don’t have a huge selection, but everything they sell has been carefully picked for its ability to thrive during our humid summers.  They’ve also received grants from SARE to trial varieties of disease resistant cucurbits, so you can feel confident about their cucumbers, squash and melons living long enough to produce a good harvest!  They select their own strains and also do a little breeding.  I am especially enamored with the South Anna Butternut, which is a cross they made with a butternut and seminole squash.  It’s extremely disease resistant and productive.  Two years ago, one vine I grew produced over 70lbs of squash!!  

There are certainly tons of other seed companies out there worth supporting, but these are the companies I keep coming back to year after year.  Whether it’s the price, or the selection, or the regional adaptability, these are the companies I love to buy from!

What about you?  Do you have a favorite seed company and why?  Do you have a must have variety you have to get each year and who is your supplier?