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Don’t Be Ordinary: Consider the Source

Hayefield in Bucks County, Pennsylvania--the source of all seeds I sell at Hayefield on Etsy
Hayefield in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (the source of all Hayefield seeds)

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.

Bee Chemical-Free

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.

When you’re trying to support pollinators, the last thing you want to do is possibly harm them with the very plants you’re hoping will help them.

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).

Think Local

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.

It’s always a thrill to walk into a big greenhouse packed with benches full of plants to choose from. But oh, do I miss the days of small backyard nurseries! They may have been a bit weedy and disorganized at times, but you never knew what gems you were going to find there.

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…

Adaptation Matters

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.

‘Alma’s PA Dutch Purple Burgundy’ is a rare heirloom lima bean grown in Pennsylvania.

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.

If you’re replanting a natural area in southeastern Pennsylvania with cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), for example, and local provenance is an issue, you’d look for seeds from other populations of that species growing in southeastern Pennsylvania, rather than buying seeds from Wisconsin or Georgia or some other region. I didn’t have to hunt for a local source, fortunately; the species appeared on its own in my meadow, probably from some plants growing in a nearby wetland.

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.

Origin Stories

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.

Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) is an obvious choice for Ohio gardeners, or anyone who has a special interest in Ohio natives. Each time I see it blooming beautifully in my meadow, it reminds me of family members who are settled in that state.

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.

These beautiful ‘Borlotto di Nova Ponente’ pole beans came to me last winter from an Italian gardener with a special interest in heirloom varieties. I had never heard of Nova Ponente before, so I had to do a bit of research about it. Now, I think of the pictures I found of this beautiful village in northern Italy each time I handle the seeds.



Posted on 5 Comments

5 thoughts on “Don’t Be Ordinary: Consider the Source

  1. Yes to small backyard nurseries…my Linaria purpurea ‘Canon Went’, that I’ve been growing now for over 20-some years, started with a 4″ pot from a backyard nursery in SoCal…and grasses that I have that I will be growing as long as the rest of my life…I can fondly say, Oh, seed for those came from Nan……Thank You….

    You are most welcome, Sherry. I like hearing about the seeds in their new homes. And cool–you now have a bicoastal garden!

  2. I have grown some of the coolest plants because of your seed giveaway.
    Bean ‘Merveille de Venise’ …love them. So tasty. I have increased my seed supply to share with friends.
    Grew the Alma’s PA dutch purple lima this year. Hope to grow enough next year to have some to eat.
    Do you still grow the Moldova marigolds? So pretty.

    Hi Mel! Yes, that ‘Merveille de Venise’ bean is a winner, isn’t it? So vigorous, and so high-yielding. The only problem is that it can be hard to keep up with harvesting; at least the yellow pods are easy to see. The lima bean is supposed to have a nutty flavor, but I haven’t yet tried eating it myself, because I end up parting with nearly all of the seeds. I didn’t grow it this year so I’d have space for ‘Ping Zebra’, but I plan to include ‘Alma’ again next year. I think I still have some of the Moldovan marigold in my seed box. Thanks for reminding me; I should grow that out again too next season.

  3. Good morning Nan! Lots of great information again this month. Thanks. We still have a few Mom and Pop operations around here thankfully that grow their own. And I love to grow my own as you know! I still grow Nicotiana Langsdorffii from you yearly, it doesn’t reseed for me and people are always drawn to it, wonderful in the jewel garden. Hope you have a great Christmas. TTFN …Sue

    Hi there, Sue! Ooh…I love the idea of a “jewel garden”; I can just imagine it, and how that acid-green nicotiana would set off the rich colors. I wish you a very Merry Christmas in return–and an early Happy Sowing Season!

  4. I like the new look, Nan; the photos stand out better. Looking forward to growing your variegated tobacco and striped corn next season. I used to be leery of variegation, but following Hayefield over the years has fired my interest. I wish you’d turn your mind to public plantings–your way with plants could bring municipal green spaces into the 21st century. Happy holidays and best of luck in 2020.

    Thank you for the feedback, Tom. I hadn’t expected the gray to work but thought it looked nice. I may change it with the seasons.

    Your seeds should be delivered today. I hope you enjoy growing the variegated tobacco this summer: The patterning is so spectacular. (Don’t forget to discard the solid-green seedlings early on, so you don’t end up giving valuable garden space to the “boring” ones.)

    I appreciate your comment about public plantings. My design skills aren’t up to that, but it would be an interesting challenge to provide less common plants for such a project. At times, I toy with the idea of returning to growing plants for sale, but then I wouldn’t have time for seeds.

    Happy holidays to you too!

  5. Even as a Californian working with plants and seed sources from all over the world, I learned the importance of prioritizing the utilization of what is native here rather than exotics. Ironically, I learned it from those who were not originally Californian. It was something that worked well where they came from. We are very fortunate here to have redwood trees for building material, madrone and oak for firewood, and even native bigleaf maples if we want to get a small bit of sugar from them. There is no need to grow exotics for such applications. However, native fruit and vegetable plants are scarce here. The most productive berries are the wickedly naturalized Himalayan blackberries. The most productive vegetables are mustard and radish greens that naturalized after being imported for cover crop. Nonetheless, we still appreciate and promote the proliferation of the native fruits and vegetables. Only recently (after I wrote about them), the native blue elderberries started to be used like the eastern black elderberries. (They are toxic fresh though, so must be cooked.) However, much of the seed for non native species comes from far away, just because it is not available here. Some of what is purchased from far away may have originated even farther away. We don’t use much, but we use some. I intend to grow muscadines from seed, which come from Georgia. I will get paw paw seeds from Ohio. As much as I like the natives here, it would not be practical to be limited to them.

    Hey there, Tony. I really appreciate you sharing your insights on the importance of considering provenance. It’s an issue worthy of serious consideration, for sure.

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