The Seedy Side of Gardening: The Best Seed Catalogs for This Summer's Garden

The unofficial rule dictates that you don’t start browsing through seed catalogs until well after the New Year. They’ve been on my bedside table since before Christmas, but that’s only because the first ones started arriving in November. They’re playing dirty with my resolve; in Minnesota, that’s a full six months before planting.

If you haven’t ordered seeds before you won’t have the pleasure and the nuisance of receiving the deluge of catalogs—which is annoying if you’re starting a garden for the first time. Every winter I receive notes from friends requesting my seed sources, so this year I thought that a seed company primer for northern gardeners might be in order. And as more and more seed companies drop their print catalogs altogether and transfer their operation to their websites, the contact information becomes even harder to find.

In my opinion, the king of the heirloom seeds is Seed Savers Exchange from Iowa. Technically a non-profit cooperative of seed-sharing members, they have the largest non-governmental seed bank in the U.S., and their catalog shows off that bounty. Only the coolest, rarest and most interesting varieties of vegetables and plants grace these pages. They’re a bit expensive, but I buy a few things from them that I can’t get anywhere else: Blondkopfchen yellow cherry tomatoes, for example. (Like lemon drops on the vine.)

I also must confess a weakness for Seeds of Change, the glossiest catalog of them all. Coming out of New Mexico, Seeds of Change also traffics in rare heirlooms, most of them organic. Here the centerfolds of fruits and vegetables are swoon-inducing — but keep in mind that they’re grown in a southern climate and that the seeds cost twice as much as the same variety found elsewhere.

Which brings us to Fedco Seeds, my bulk carrier for the past few seasons. I choose them because I’ve had good luck germinating their seeds but also just because I think they’re cool. Back when they sent out catalogs I cherished the Fedco one, full of hippie scribblings, unusual literary excerpts and the occasional page-long rant against Monsanto. The same great stuff is now online; exercise your zoom finger.

Fedco carries a large variety of indeterminate (heirloom) seeds and lots of certified organic seed. They also carry a few hybrids, which, if you’re like me and you think it’s nice to taste a garden tomato in August, might matter to you. But most importantly, they’re from Maine. It’s cold there, and I’m hoping that the seeds that thrive there will thrive here in Minnesota.

Pinetree Garden Seeds, also from Maine, shares many of Fedco’s good attributes: low prices, good germination, and extensive selection. I alternate my favor between the two of them. However, Pinetree seems to carry a better selection of obscure foreign seeds, from unusual Asian Green Heart Radishes to authentic Pasilla Bajio chile peppers to eggplants of such odd description you’re tempted to order them out of sheer curiosity. (Do it! Only $1.75!)

Most of the these companies focus on heirloom seeds, the vintage ones that you can harvest yourself from the ripe plant and save for the following year. But a few others mix heirloom offerings with hybrid seeds. When I first began gardening I thought that “hybrid” was a dirty word, but I’ve since come around. They’re not bad seeds, they’re just the product of two crossed varieties. Sometimes, because they’ve been selected for traits such as disease-resistance or “earliness,” they’re actually easier to grow than the heirlooms.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds is a classic source if you’d like to compare hybrids to heirlooms, and none of their seed comes from genetically engineered sources. Their website is also a great resource for information about starting seeds and growing healthy plants.

Lastly, I will always carry a soft spot for The Cook’s Garden, my first seed source. They got their start selling lettuces and their website continues to reflect that passion. I turn to them for my favorite Sylvetta Arugula, the wilder, spicier and hardier strain of regular Rocquette. This is the catalog that reeled me into gardening by publishing serious and tempting recipes; so even though they cost a bit more than Fedco, I feel good putting the fate of my mesclun bed into their hands.

This post was proudly submitted to Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays.

Simple Good and Tasty is pleased to welcome writer and chef Amy Thielen. Amy worked in New York for 8 years, cooking with celebrity chefs David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. She also developed recipes for Country Living Magazine, tested recipes for Martha Stewart, and worked on two cookbooks. Now, she lives with her husband and son in Park Rapids, Minnesota, in a house so lodged in the woods that the wolves' howls are louder than her neighbor's barking dog. She teaches cooking classes in her kitchen and at Cooks of Crocus Hill, writes food stories for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and keeps a blog called Sourtooth.