25 February 2009

The very great pleasures of buying seeds.

I love buying seeds. Lots of seeds.
Growing plants from my garden lets me do a lot of things at once. I'm a collector – I want one of everything, the more unusual and quirky, the better. This taste in plants tends to leave a garden an ill-designed hash of one of this, one of that. Good design requires you to repeat the use of plants – big swaths of a single plant, and repeating a plant through a landscape gives the sense of unity and purpose a well designed garden requires.
So my collector self wants lots of different plants, and my designer side wants lots of each individual plant. Which adds up to a lot of plants I can't afford.
So I grow plants from seed.
The great thing about seeds is they are cheap – a packet generally contains dozens if not hundreds of seeds, and costs only a couple dollars. They require a little patience and skill, of course, to germinate and grow to flowering size, but that is half the pleasure. Gardening is never about instant gratification, and the beauty when it arrives is all the most enjoyable for the time spent anticipating.
Not only does growing plants from seed allow me to collect plants in large enough numbers to create decent design, seeds are simply the best way to acquire most unusual plants. Any local garden center – no matter how brilliant – only carries a tiny fraction of the fascinating diversity that are plants. Shopping for tomato seedlings at my nursery limits me to half a dozen choices. Open up a few catalogs, however, and I get to consider over a hundred different tomatoes – from seed. Mail order specialty plant nurseries can supply you with a wide range of unusual plants, but the problem with mail order is shipping: It is expensive, and plants hate it. Mail order plants are always over priced, under sized, and in poor health compared to what you buy locally. Seeds, on the other hand, cost virtually nothing to ship, and are nearly impossible to harm.
Not only that, but you can have seeds shipped to you from virtually anywhere in the world. The US is extremely strict on rules on importing live plants, but seeds cross borders easily, and a few international seed catalogs can expose you to a dizzying array of plants you never heard of.
Not all plants can be easily grown from seed, and some traits, like leaf variegations, will not come true from seed. I do buy plants in person and via mail order every year, and greatly enjoy the convenience and instant effect of a well grown plant from the nursery.
But mostly, I buy seeds.
My favorite seed companies:
For vegetables (and some mainstream ornamentals):
Johnnys Selected Seeds – great selection of vegetables, and really just a very cool company. They do a lot of breeding of varieties specifically for home gardeners with a wonderful focus on varieties that actually taste delicious and are adapted to Northern climates. Their catalog is packed with information on growing as well – I refer to it at least as much as any of my reference books on vegetable gardening.
Pinetree Garden Seeds – a fun little company with a decent selection of vegetables all sold in packets which are smaller and much cheaper than usual – which makes a lot of sense for the home gardener. Why pay for 500 tomato seeds when you only need 20?
The Seed Savers Exchange – Their focus is on preserving heirloom vegetable varieties. The catalog is full of really cool, sometimes bizarre varieties. I always end up buying tomato seeds from them.
For perennials and rare plants:
Chiltern Seeds: The catalog is mind bogglingly huge and their descriptions of varieties are always funny. A catalog the size of a small book, and I read it cover to cover multiple times when I get it each winter – with google by my side to look up pictures of all the things I have no idea what are. They are based in the UK but ship to the US. Prices are high, particularly because of the exchange rate from dollars to pounds, but they've got seeds you won't find anywhere else.
B & T World Seeds: A company based in France, a source for seed of almost any species you can think of. They don't really have descriptions of varieties, and it isn't a fun catalog to browse, but if you know what you are looking for, they probably have it. Prices are high due to international shipping and the exchange rate.
Specialty Perennials: A US company with very reasonable prices and a drool-inducing array of things for sale -- but be prepared for terrible customer service. It can take months for orders to actually ship, and they never reply to e-mails – but they will get you your seeds eventually, and those seeds will be so cool you'll forgive them and order again next year.