How Much Do Seeds Really Matter?


When I grab a ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato seedling from the nursery, I look to see if it’s been grown organically but I have no idea where the seed used to grow that seedling came from. And I never gave it a thought—until this year. This year, seeds and where they come from has felt a lot more urgent. And I’ve tried to make sure that all the Dirt to Dinner seeds came from companies not involved with GMOs, the more local and more independent the better. In order to support the Safe Seed growers I have found, I bought seed of my favorite varieties from more than one source. I have ‘Cherokee Purple’ seeds from four different companies growing. I think I ended up with ‘Lemon’ cucumbers from at least five different places.

Which got me thinking, “How much does it really matter where my seeds come from?” Of course it matters in terms of voting with your seed dollars for the kind of practices you want to see in the seed industry, supporting local economies where possible and to the folks who grow and distribute safe seed. But does it matter in my garden? Does it matter on my table?

Turns out, I think it matters a whole lot more than I ever imagined. In late February, I started seeds of ‘Principe Borghese’ tomatoes for drying from Tomato FlowerBountiful Gardens and Victory Seeds. I planted them under the same conditions in the same flat. All the BG seed was sprouted a week later, with less than half the VS seeds up. Final germination was BG 100% and VS 75%. I eventually thinned to the best four plants from each seed house and on April 16th I planted them in the same warm and cozy growing bed. The tallest, strongest, plant, which is already flowering, is one of the Victory seeds. And the only seedling that didn’t do well in the transplant process? It’s also from Victory. Though maybe I should have more thoroughly thawed the salmon heads before I stuffed them in the bottom of the tomato holes. If that poor seedlings roots were scrunched up against frozen salmon eyeballs the first day or two, that’s hardly the seed’s fault! I plan to measure the amount and weight of tomatoes produced and to dry each batch separately in case there is a difference in taste. If it doesn’t eventually taste good, who cares which day it germinates?

The day after I started the tomatoes, I planted ‘Scarlet Ohno’ turnips from High Mowing and Bountiful Gardens. The BG tops are taller and earlier, Scarlet Ohno Turnipswhich, if you are growing for turnip greens, could make a big difference. But the roots are different as well. The Bountiful Gardens ‘Scarlet Ohno’ is a vibrant, almost-beet red. The High Mowing root, though the same size, is clearly more pink even though the two turnip rows are growing in the same bed, with the same soil, water, everything.

I’ve been surprised by the amount of variation in some of the varieties. I tried ‘Canellini’ beans from three different sources and one variety didn’t even come up at all!

I don’t actually understand enough about the seed industry or plant genetics to fully get why this would be. I’m heading back to Carol Deppe’s Breeding Your Own Vegetable Varieties to see what I can figure out. And I’m going to keep experimenting with side-by-side trials like these to see what else I can learn with the kids in the garden this summer.

My Little Seed Data-Bank

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In my quest to achieve new heights of garden nerdom, I have begun to compile a database of the seeds I am planning to use for 2011.   The first 122 hopefuls are listed by seed source, type, variety, year the seed was packaged for and any comments I have to add from previous years of growing them. Most of the seed is open pollinated, from small operations owned and run by actual people wherever possible. Some of the seed I purchase from a couple different sources so I can compare how each performs in the garden under our growing conditions.

Seed to Seed

I’m growing open-pollinated seeds from Bountiful Gardens and Adaptive Seeds because I like the idea that I could save seed from year to year and eventually end up with a variety that has adapted to perform better in this area in the ways that matter to us. My mother-in-law handed down some of the family fava bean seeds to me this Christmas Eve. They have been adapting to growing in our Zone 9b location for at least 35 years, and to growing in nearby Santa Cruz for several generations before that.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75% of agricultural crop diversity was lost during the 20th century. Think about that for a minute. The climate is changing at the same time the diversity of crops we are going to need to meet the challenge of that changing climate is being lost. Farmers all over the world used to save their own seeds, seeds that adapted to the local conditions, just like my in-laws saved their favas and basil seeds. But now enormous amounts of seed diversity are being lost and huge corporations are controlling, patenting and hybridizing seed resources. 25% of the world’s seed supply is already controlled by just three agro-chemical corporations. I think they can manage without the seeds growing in my yard too.


Hybrid vs. Open-pollinated