Savvy Seed Selection

Posted on Tuesday, 6 June 2023 under Stories

Thanks go to Carolyn Bateman, Sal Dominelli, Lisa Willott and David Catzel for their valuable input.

For the home gardener and small farmer, seed purchases are not our biggest expense, but perhaps the most crucial for getting the food garden we hope for. Did you know seeds vary a great deal in authenticity and quality? Like good food, the cheapest is not necessarily the best. It’s worth paying a little extra to get good quality and to support your local economies.

You are looking for seed that has been carefully grown and selected from healthy populations of plants, dried, cleaned and stored well. I’ve provided some background on the fine art of seed saving so you can make informed choices about where to purchase your seeds.

Seed sold to farmers in Canada and the U.S. is graded and required to meet a minimum germination. This is important because a farmer’s livelihood depends on good seed. Seeds sold to home gardeners are not necessarily held to the same standard.

So it’s important to know what you’re buying. You’re concerned not only about the germination rates but the vigour of the plants and the purity of the seeds. Self-pollinating crops such as peas, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers are quite easy to keep pure. But many crops, such as carrots, corn, broccoli and squashes, are cross-pollinators, meaning a grower needs enough land to keep plants separate and the pollination process pure.

Also if a vendor advertises their seeds as locally grown, check to see what they mean by local. “local” is often used loosely. It could mean Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, or North America. If they are offering a variety that doesn’t grow well enough to mature and go to seed in your area, it is likely not grown by the vendor but rather purchased in bulk and repackaged. It may have been grown on the prairies, the East Coast, or even in South America or Asia. If you’re a new gardener or new to an area, ask locals who’ve been gardening in that area for a long time. They’ll direct you to the best companies for locally grown seeds.

Generally, growing out several varieties of the same species of cross-pollinated crops such as corn, broccoli, or carrot takes a pretty good size property to keep the varieties separate as they go to seed. Growers need a minimum population to get enough genetic diversity in the crop and a minimum of 1,500 feet distance from others of their species to come true. It is possible to set isolation structures to keep out pollen and pollinators but complicated. Growing out five varieties of corn on a small property, for example, and offering them all for sale in one year, would be challenging if not impossible. If you are purchasing directly from a vendor at a seed event, ask about cross-pollination and how the company safeguards against it. Ask where they grow out their seed and how big their farm is.

As well, ask vendors whether the seed has been tested for good germination, and how old the seed was before it was packaged. Most seed is viable for two to three years, and seed growers will test germination rates each of those years before they feel confident enough to sell that seed. It is good if vendors put the germination rate on the packet and when it was tested.

It is also good to be mindful of the use of the word “organic.” If the vendor lists their seed as organic, their packaging should give the certification number and certifying organization on their packaging. In Canada, a product can’t legally be called “organic” unless it’s “certified organic.” Getting “certified organic” is a fairly rigorous and expensive process.

According to Bob Wildfong, executive director of the Seeds of Diversity, a Canadian organization dedicated to preserving heirloom food crops, “Most commercial seeds are grown on a large scale in Southeast Asia and South America, harvested mechanically, and sold through a wholesale seed network. The varieties offered are not intended for optimum growth in Canadian growing conditions.” The main drivers for seeds produced in these countries are economics and climate. Labour costs are low, and the climate is favourable.

Here in BC, we are very lucky to have such a diversity of microclimates suitable for a wide range of seed production. To support that local seed production, much like local food production, we will need to pay a higher price to reflect living wages in our country. Seed distributors (as opposed to seed growers) tend to favour purchasing bulk seeds from Southeast Asia and South America because the cost of seed is much lower, therefore increasing their profits. But if we want a local seed industry, we will all need to support it with our dollars. Locally produced seed has been adapted to our local climate and is the only long-term solution to having resilient, locally produced vegetables.

If you’re a new gardener or new to an area, ask locals who’ve been gardening in that area for a long time. They’ll direct you to the best companies for locally grown seeds because they know the value of purchasing local seeds and supporting local growers who are saving the heirloom and open-pollinated varieties we are losing rapidly as a society.

About the Author

Mary Alice Johnson is the owner of ALM Farms and Full Circle Seeds and has been farming for over 35 years. Last year she took part in our Seed Mentorship Program, and continues growing at her farm in Sooke, BC. Johnson is a leader in the organic movement and dedicated to feeding her community and teaching young farmers about growing food and sustaining the land.

Full Circle Seeds