Garden Variety: Where — and when — to source your seeds
Seeds for vegetables, herbs, and flowers are available through a variety of sources. Those who are new to the gardening world often ask which source is best, and experienced gardeners often look for sources they might have missed in the past. The best source for your seeds depends on what you’re planting, how much seed you need, where the crops will be grown and your individual style and preferences.
The most popular options for obtaining vegetable and flower seeds are garden centers and mail-order companies. Seeds might also be obtained through seed exchanges, seed libraries, other gardeners or previous years’ crops.
Gardeners looking for small quantities of old standbys and basic crops can generally find what they need at a garden center. Packets are generally inexpensive, easy to access and appropriate for the region in which they are being sold, and you can support local stores at the same time. Seed packets at garden centers are easy to pick up while shopping for mature plants and other gardening supplies. For best selection, plan to shop in late winter or early spring, soon after displays are set up and new seeds arrive for the season.
Most seeds at garden centers are sold in small quantities, but a few centers offer larger packets or bulk quantities. Check around if that’s what you want.
Gardeners looking for heirloom varieties, specialty crops, and large quantities of seed might prefer to order what they need by mail. Most catalogs and websites were updated in December, and now is a good time to make selections and place orders before supplies sell out.
Mail-order companies are a great source of seeds, but remember when shopping that what you see might not always be what you get. Catalogs and websites are often full of pictures of alluring produce and brilliant flowers, but some of those crops will be marginal for northeast Kansas or might not survive here at all. Another thing to consider is the reputability and location of the company. There are many large seed retailers that have been in business for decades, and there are also many smaller companies that are newer to the industry but fill niches of local, heirloom, and other unusual seeds. The main thing to consider is quality of seeds being offered (whether they’re viable and true to variety) and their suitability for planting in northeast Kansas. Read reviews and do your homework on the company and the plants before you buy.
Seed exchanges are events where gardeners share seeds, and they’re good opportunities to pick up small quantities of old standby crops as well as heirloom and native varieties. These seeds are typically offered for free to attendees, but in small quantities, and there’s no guarantee as to their viability or purity. Often, gardeners will donate seeds from previous years’ stock or from their own personal collections. One local seed exchange, the Kaw Valley Seed Fair, occurred annually in Lawrence through February of last year. The exchange has been canceled for this year, but it hopes to resume in 2022.
Seed libraries are places that offer donated vegetable, herb and flower seeds for free. They are generally offered in very small quantities (a few seeds per packet) and are great for people who want to try gardening for the first time or who have limited space. The Lawrence Public Library has offered seeds in this fashion in the spring in previous years and also has a collection of other gardening resources.
Seeds from friends and neighbors and seeds saved from previous years’ crops can also be a great source. Seeds for flowers such as zinnias are some of the easiest to save, but any crop can be passed along or saved in this manner. If you’re new to seed-saving, take time to learn about cross-pollination and hybridization, which can cause seeds from certain crops to produce fruit that is different from that of the parent crop. This might result in tomatoes that are flavorless or prone to disease, or melons with odd flavors and shapes.
Gardeners who are growing plants in limited spaces or in containers might also be interested in specialty varieties of compact plants. These are generally labeled as container or patio plants. Seeds might be found in any of the sources above.
— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.