It’s time to cover the next good reason for growing from seed: the ability to know where your plants come from. Why would you care about that when there are so many more obvious things to think about, like height, flower color, bloom time, and light requirements? It might be an economic, environmental, or ecology-related issue for you, or it might be a sentimental one. Unless you are lucky enough to connect with a grower who knows (and cares) exactly where their seeds and plants come from, finding and growing out the seeds yourself may be the only way to get what you wish for your garden.
If you’ve been keeping up with the challenges that honeybees are facing these days, you probably know about neonicotinoids, a group of insecticides that have been linked to harmful effects on not just honeybees, but also wild bees, butterflies, and a range of other organisms. Even if you don’t use chemical sprays in your garden, you may unknowingly buy plants or seeds that have been treated with these materials, which can linger within the plants–including their pollen and nectar–and even the soil they’re growing in.
If you can’t find sources that can assure you their plants are not treated with neonicotinoids, growing them yourself is a way to have peace on mind on that point. Just be sure that the seeds you use haven’t been treated, either. Stick with seeds from certified-organic sources, and from sellers that you trust to offer chemical-free seeds (if you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to ask).
When you purchase plants for your garden, do you know how far they’ve traveled to get to you? I remember when there were many wonderful small nurseries and greenhouses in this part of Pennsylvania, where you could actually see their propagation areas and know that they grew the plants they sold from start to finish. These days, sources like that are rare and getting rarer. It’s been a sad thing to see passionate plantspeople either give up on growing or switch to buying in started plants rather than growing their own, just to be able to save production time and compete economically.
These days, you generally don’t know if the plants you’re buying are from a grower 10 miles away or 1000 miles away. And even a local grower may just be an intermediary, buying plugs or rooted cuttings from larger producers, potting them up, and then retailing them or wholesaling them to your favorite garden center. Maybe that isn’t a concern for you, and that’s absolutely okay. But if you want your dollars to support small, local businesses instead of distant mega-growers pushing the same branded plants into every retailer in your area, buying seeds from sources close to you and growing the plants yourself may be a more comfortable choice for you.
Tracking down local seed sources can take a bit of sleuthing, but doing some web searches is a fun way to spend a dreary winter afternoon. Here are a few suggestions:
- Start with a search with the name of your state or region and the term “seed companies,” and take the time to click past the first few pages of well-known names to look for smaller businesses.
- Try another search with the name of your state or region and the term “seed dealers.” Here in PA, at least, those of us who sell seeds are required to hold a Seed Dealer License from the PA Department of Agriculture, and all who have current licenses are listed in an online directory here: Licensed Seed Dealer Search. Even if your state doesn’t have a formal licensing program, you may be able to find lists of seed suppliers this way.
- Try an advanced search at the Garden Watchdog with the keyword “seed” and your state to see what sources you can find, and read reviews of them too.
- Visit the Seed Savers Exchange online catalog and plug the name of your state into the search box to see what’s available from nearby SSE members. You don’t even have to be a member yourself to browse the offerings. It’s free to join, though, and then you can request seeds that you find of interest. As you look through the listings, you may find seeds that are particularly identified with, and well adapted to, your state or region. And that leads to my next point…
Growing from seed gives you the opportunity to explore species and varieties that are ideally suited to your area. Locally-adapted varieties of garden plants have been grown from seed to seed in a particular region for many years, and these proven performers offer you a high probability of success. They often come with memorable stories as well—that they were historically used for a specific purpose, or named for a particular person, or preserved by a certain family for generations. When you bring these special seeds in your garden—and especially when you then save and share the seeds and their stories with others—you are connected with their history and the many other gardeners who have grown and treasured them.
Looking for locally adapted garden seeds isn’t quite the same thing as buying from a local seed source. A seed source in your state or region may grow the seeds they sell, or they may buy seeds elsewhere and repackage them for sale. If you really want to go local, buy from sources that grow the seeds they sell, or that source their seeds from small growers close by. To find them, try a search for your state or region plus “locally adapted seeds” or “heirloom seeds.” Preserving the history of these seeds is important to the people who offer them, so be prepared to lose a few hours once you start browsing their listings, because it’s easy to get drawn into reading the fascinating story behind each seed they offer.
The Issue of Provenance
If you ever hang around folks who are involved with ecological restoration, you’ve likely heard them mention the term “provenance,” referring to where, specifically, seeds of native plants have been harvested from. Just as with regional heirloom varieties of garden plants, locally-sourced seeds of native plants are uniquely well suited to the growing conditions in a given area.
Now, there are other concerns involved in provenance for restoration projects—like what exactly “local” means, and whether it’s always a good thing to stick with local genetics or possibly better to introduce genes from populations adapted to other areas to compensate for climate change. Those issues aren’t so much a consideration on a garden scale, but the general idea of choosing locally adapted native plants is easy to get behind, and it’s a neat way to connect your garden with the larger ecology of your area. If you’re lucky enough to live near a retail nursery that sells local-provenance natives, that’s great; otherwise, growing from locally sourced seed is probably your only option if you’re interested in the adaptation issue.
Are your gardening decisions are based more on sentiment than science? Instead of sticking only with local plants, you might enjoy tracking down those that represent some other place that’s special to you: another region you’re particularly fond of, perhaps, or a favored vacation spot, a memorable garden you visited, or your family’s country of origin.
It’s not easy to deal with live plants when you’re traveling, but there’s always room for a few packets of seed in a suitcase, purse, or wallet. I’m not encouraging you to go scrounging for seeds from wild or public places, of course! But there’s no reason you couldn’t buy seeds there and bring them back with you, or mail-order them from there once you get back home, as long as you follow all appropriate import rules. Besides being beautiful or productive in your garden, these living souvenirs will hold a special place in your heart. And when you share those plants or their seeds with friends and family, you’ll have a great story to go along with them.