Resilience: It’s a buzzword in the vegetable seed industry and a mission – to breed genetically resilient varieties that can withstand pests, diseases, and the rigors of a changing climate.
Each resilient strain becomes a tiny, critical ingredient in a resilient seed system that supports agriculture and forms the basis of a resilient food system.
In the turbulent 2020 seed catalog season, resilience also proved to be a valuable human trait for the employees of the seed companies and their customers. Insights from this chaotic year of record sales may pave the way for the 2021 gardening season, which officially kicks off this month, as new catalogs appear in mailboxes and online.
This time, last time, nobody could see it coming – sales peaks of up to 300 percent, which began immediately after the declaration of a national emergency on March 13 and repeated the World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration two days earlier.
“When many of us returned to the office on Monday, we were amazed to see how many orders there were,” said Joshua D’errico, marketing coordinator for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which has 47 years of sales history by comparison. “We thought it was a slip, but it wasn’t.”
“Fortunately, we’ve had some warnings from colleagues at other companies – heads up seeing this tape,” said Heron Breen, a research and development manager at Fedco Seeds who has worked for Northeastern gardeners since 1978. Line companies were flooded first, and when they were overwhelmed, we were actually flooded. “
Fulfillment operations have been postponed; Sales had to be suspended from almost every supplier, sometimes repeated to catch up. Catalog inquiries and web searches for growing advice were also common.
But vendors big and small, older and newer, have a reassuring message for home gardeners: they’re well stocked. There is no seed shortage beyond what can happen in an agricultural year, when a crop failure is always possible for one variety or another.
To those of us who saw “out of stock” labels on many product pages of websites this past spring, this may not sound like intuitive. Despite the wording, it was often not due to a lack of seeds.
“It was more about not having enough hands to pack it in packages in time to meet the increasing demand,” said Andrea Tursini, Marketing Director at 25-year-old High Mowing Organic Seeds. “And it came towards the end of our usual high season – not a time when we usually pack a lot of seeds.”
In addition, there is the challenge of staffing safe staff and complying with the pandemic guidelines – plus increasing burnout of employees – and giving something.
Seed companies have been working overtime and skipping the summer vacation to refine and strengthen their systems. Before we rummage through their catalogs, it is our turn as home gardeners to optimize our processes. Here are some thoughts on shopping, as well as some favorite catalogs. Everyone feels as welcome as a reunion with an old friend.
Catalogs are intended for studying, not just for shopping
I don’t advocate hoarding seeds, but when it comes to seed catalogs, I say more is better (whether in print or online). Everyone has their specialties. They also make for good reading.
Before I had a shelf of gardening books, seed catalogs were my reference manuals. If you read the variety descriptions carefully, you will learn the variety of traits possible within a single harvest and find that, for example, some broccoli form a large head while others such as Piracicaba are “not upside down” and form a cluster of smaller florets for several weeks.
Catalogs also provide knowledgeable growing information – not just when or how far apart to sow, but which varieties can withstand the summer heat – that can help you order each variety and then sow at their time, for example.
Educational support for seed companies has only deepened with the creation of digital resources. A leading example is Johnny’s Grower’s Library, which “has seen a huge increase in attendance this year,” said D’errico.
Avoid impulse buying
My seed shopping and gardening season begins in the dark of a cool, dry closet where I keep my leftover seeds – imperfect, I admit, but good enough to get a second year out of practically everything, except maybe onions, the most Viability tables say only lasts a year.
Taking a careful inventory of the remaining items is Step 1 to avoid duplicates that will waste money and seeds.
The occasional binge is encouraged; Trying out new things adds to the firsthand experience. But before I order seven – or 17? – Tomatoes, I’ll take two more steps. I see if a friend is similarly inclined and wants to share an order. Then I think carefully about how much sunny garden space I really have.
Figuring out what there is space for is a little more 3D chess than just one piece per square on a static board. The pieces come and go; The same room can accommodate two or three acts. Early spinach, radishes, and lettuce greens can be followed by pepper or tomato plants throughout the summer. Then after they are pulled, the garlic bulbs could go in.
Before placing your orders, make sure to study the basic rules of the succession planting game (this is how it works).
Would you like to improve your sense of personal seed safety? Order some openly pollinated strains, not just hybrids (which may not reproduce from seed), and save their seeds for 2022.
Be ready to adapt (like a seed)
Despite all the preparations, no company can predict how many of the new gardeners from last season will order again or whether more will appear in 2021.
In a tiny slice of normalcy, at least one element remained essentially unchanged from 2019 to 2020, D’errico said. At Johnny’s Selected Seeds, the same 12 plants were bestsellers among home gardeners, albeit in a slightly different order. And among the top 4 – zinnias, French beans, heirloom tomatoes, and hot peppers – the order didn’t even change.
Still, sellers and buyers must be willing to adapt.
“Be flexible,” advised Ms. Tursini of High Mowing Organic Seeds. “If the Cherry Bomb tomato sells out, try another type of cherry tomato.” Maybe you can find one that you like better.
Also, “Order early, but don’t panic,” she said, a sentiment that echoed elsewhere, perhaps most memorably from Mr. Breen at Fedco Seeds.
“Be careful and plan your garden,” he said, “not your dystopian survival plan.”
Where to find seeds
I tend to spend my seeds for organic seeds on my organic garden and support businesses on the farm that not only buy and resell seeds, but actually grow at least some stocks – and even breed them. Most of the companies listed here fit this description.
I’m a Northeastern gardener with a short season so the seeds I have grown and grown are the best for me. But I can’t resist the occasional specialties from elsewhere, and I include specialists from other regions for such indulgences – and for other gardeners elsewhere.
Another caveat: not every company has their 2021 offers online or in print yet. So try to be patient.
In addition to the companies mentioned in this story – Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, and High Mowing Organic Seeds – small standout traits in the northeast include Hudson Valley Seed, Turtle Tree Seed, and Fruition Seeds.
It’s hard to imagine that beans or tomatoes are better adapted to the cold than those made by North Dakota-based Prairie Road Organic Seed.
The Pacific Northwest is one of the most favorable and productive climates for growing seeds in the United States. So it’s not surprising that some extraordinary companies have taken root there, including Adaptive Seeds, Siskiyou Seeds, Uprising Seeds and Wild Garden Seed.
For gardeners looking for heat-adapted seeds for southeastern gardens (or northerners who want to try okra and fatty beans), I would recommend Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Sow True Seed.
Companies serving niches with the most difficult growing conditions also have my attention. Examples include the Redwood Seed Company in Northern California, High Desert Seed and Gardens in Colorado, Native Seed / SEARCH, a nonprofit in arid Arizona, and the Snake River Seed Cooperative in Idaho, with a focus on Intermountain West.
Seed Savers Exchange is located in Iowa, but its long-standing charitable mission – preserving heirloom varieties – makes it a national resource. Part of his collection came from Glenn Drowns of the Sand Hill Preservation Center, also in Iowa. There’s no online shopping cart so expect to order old school snail mail, but oh the variety.
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