THE DETAILS: Because of all the seed-company consolidation that's taken place over the past decade, it's pretty difficult to find seeds that aren't owned or produced by large biotech corporations, such as Monsanto and Syngenta. In 2005, Monsanto acquired Seminis, a seed company that, at the time, controlled 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market. Though the company's primary customers are farmers, they also sell many of their 3,500 seed varieties in home-gardener seed catalogs. Similarly, Syngenta owns a seed company called Rogers Advantage that also supplies stores with a large number of home-gardener seeds. Often, these companies supply their seeds to other independent companies, making their products even harder to avoid.
To make matter worse, nonorganic seeds may have been pretreated with fungicides intended to prevent mold or other fungi from growing on the seeds. And those chemical fungicides could wind up in your favorite vegetables. Nonorganic seedlings are treated much the same way, and it's likely that they're sitting in potting soil that contains chemical fertilizers.
WHAT IT MEANS: In gardening, as in food, it's best to think local and organic, says John Navazio, senior scientist with the Organic Seed Alliance. "We like to see people support local, regional seed systems," he says, adding that most smaller local companies either breed their own seed or work with a network of farmers, instead of buying from large corporations. And it'll most likely benefit your garden, as the companies will know what grows and thrives well in your local climate. "If a seed company is good and really engaged in plant breeding, you really stand to prosper in your garden since it's adapted from regionally grown seed."
Below is a list of seed companies, many of which sell nothing but organic seeds, recommended by the Organic Seed Alliance. Of course, finding a local company that sells seeds is even better. "Just call them up and ask where their seeds come from. You want to hear that they're producing seeds themselves or buying from farmers in your region."
• Siskiyou Seeds
• Uprising Seeds
• High Mowing Seeds
• Seeds of Change
• Native Seeds SEARCH (Navazio notes that this nonprofit collects seeds from native peoples of Mexico and the southwestern U.S., so its seeds are best suited to regions with similar climates)
• Seed Savers Exchange
Once you get your garden going, you can start saving seeds from year to year, which means you won't have to buy seeds at all. And as technical as it sounds, it isn't that hard, says Shannon Carmody, membership manager of Seed Savers Exchange. "People have been doing this for thousands of years, and everyone has their own way of doing it." She suggests starting out with tomatoes and dry beans, which are the easiest to save year-to-year. "With beans you just leave them on the vine, let the pods dry out, and then save the beans inside," she says.
Tomatoes are a little more involved. "If you've ever squeezed out the guts of a tomato, you know there's this gelatinous coating. It contains chemicals that inhibit the seeds from germinating." To save the seeds, you just need to take that coating off. You can simply wash it off, but at Seed Savers, Carmody says, they let the seeds "ferment." Squeeze that gelatinous mix into a jar, then let the jar sit for a few days, after which a thin layer of mold forms on the top of the mix. That removes the coating, she says, and the seeds sink to the bottom. Any liquid leftover gets poured off, and the seeds are laid out to dry. After they dry, she says, store the seeds in a cool place, preferably your refrigerator. "Cool and dry is the rule of thumb, but a dry place is more important," she says. Not the freezer, though; the freeze-and-thaw cycle can lead to moisture buildup on your seeds, and that can ruin them.
For instructions on saving a wider variety of seeds, Carmody recommends a book called Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. You can also download a free seed-saving guide from the Organic Seed Alliance's website.