One of the Joys of Maturity
We've purchased almost all of the seed used in the Senior Garden for many years from mail order seed houses. There's simply a far wider choice of seed varieties available via mail order than one will ever find on seed racks in stores. One also has the option of ordering larger amounts of seed than seed racks offer, frequently at considerable savings. While most mail order vendors now offer online sales, we still like paging through print seed catalogs on cold winter days. We do, however, use the Internet for placing most of our orders.
November seems to be the beginning of the season for seed houses to start sending out garden seed catalogs to previous customers and those requesting catalogs. It varies by company, but we begin getting catalogs around the first of November. That's good for us, since we begin planting geranium and onion seed in December or January and need to place the first of our orders by late November or early December!
Each November, I make a posting on our Senior Garden blog of the seed suppliers we plan to use for the oncoming gardening season and keep an updated list of them on this page. We tend to use many of the same trusted suppliers year after year, but also try one or two new ones each year.
Criteria for Trusted Supplier Status
Our list of recommended seed suppliers is based on our recent and long-term experiences with the vendors listed, winnowed a bit using The Garden Watchdog ratings from Dave's Garden. Some of the relationships run back well over thirty years, while others are more recent additions.
We shy away from seed houses that have been gobbled up by large, corporate conglomerates (Shumway being the lone exception), staying mostly with independent companies and a few, still small, family owned and operated operations. All of our recommended suppliers have clearly stated in one way or another that they do not sell or intend to sell in the future Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
Rather than try to list our favorites in order, these listings are in alphabetical order. We've used each of them in the past year. Note that links, where possible, are to the vendor's mail order catalog request page.
I'm always on the hunt for reliable vendors of quality seed, especially those that offer open pollinated varieties. If you know of one we should consider, .
I can't afford to order from all my favorite or reader suggested seed houses each year. The list below includes some vendors we've not recently used, one we had a minor problem with, and a few new places we'd like to try (when my penny jar fills up again).
I obviously have no experience in buying from the folks listed below, as they only ship to Canadian addresses. But each one comes with one or more positive recommendations from Senior Gardening Canadian readers. Some of our recommended suppliers, Johnny's immediately comes to mind, also ship seed into Canada. The Seeds of Diversity site has a great resource list of seed providers, including sources in Canada (Seeds of Diversity is a Canadian outfit.), the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
After years of hunting a good supplier for pots, flats, inserts, hanging baskets and such, I've finally settled on the Greenhouse Megastore (DGW rating). We have placed several orders with them over the last few years. Each order arrived promptly, properly filled, and well packed. At my request, they began carrying the sturdy, but rather expensive Perma-Nest trays that make handling heavy flats full of moist planting medium much easier. Perma-Nest trays are solids, so I often slip a slotted 1020 tray inside the Perma-Nest tray to allow for some drainage.
While we're close to the subject of seeds and seed starting, I'll recommend a couple of seed starting products we use and are quite happy with. My original seedling heat mat was a Gro-Mat. While sold with a wire rack that keeps it from touching the bottom of seed flats, I use mine without the rack most of the time. Note that I also melted the center of a standard 1020 seed flat with it before I added an external thermostat to my setup! After that experience, I switched for 366 days to another, cheaper heat mat. It lasted exactly one day longer than its one year guarantee! With the addition of a thermostat, I went back to a new Gro-mat and have been reasonably happy with that setup since. My original Gro-mat still works, although I only use it with a thermostat attached or with the wire rack provided with it.
Our thermostat is a Hydrofarm Digital Thermostat. It's easy to set, hangs conveniently on a hook on our plant stand, and keeps our grow mat from melting things. I also noticed that the price for the unit hasn't changed much since we bought ours in 2009.
Shipping Charges, Promo Codes, and Such
It's not a bad idea to do a web search for coupon or promo codes for free shipping or other discounts from seed houses. Such offers become pretty scarce towards spring, though.
At right is a table of minimum shipping charges I put together last spring that is still pretty accurate. I found it necessary to begin watching such charges when I found that ordering one or two packets of seed from certain vendors was cost prohibitive because of their shipping rates.
Staying with reputable vendors usually assures one of getting good seed, but a few negative experiences with seed quality from some of our most trusted suppliers got me asking the leaders of seed houses some hard questions a few years ago. I should have known the answer, as it's been published elsewhere in the past.
Seed houses often purchase seed for several years use, storing the bulk seed in special temperature and humidity controlled conditions. Government regulations require periodic germination testing of garden seed, but there's no way to tell if a seed packet labeled "Packed for [year]" was grown the previous season, or one, two, or more years earlier. One seed manager told me (off the record, of course) that seed his company sold could be up to five years old! The addition of a notice on seed packages of "Seed grown in [year]" would certainly be more transparent and helpful for gardeners who save seed from year to year.
My "When Hell Freezes Over" List
You may notice some well known seed houses that don't appear on our list of recommended suppliers. Sometimes that's just because I tend to go with my favorites. But in a very few cases, I've had unresolved issues with an otherwise respected seed house and determined
The old saying that one should never say never comes to mind as I write this section. Don Henley's line that later named an Eagles' live album and their most successful tour may also figure into this thought process. At the beginning of the concert recorded for the Eagle's Hell Freezes Over album, Glenn Frey joked to the audience: "For the record, we never broke up; we just took a 14-year vacation."
So those missing, big name seed houses from our list of suppliers may have just made my "when hell freezes over" list. Rather than give the few offending seed houses any publicity (far worse sometimes than bad publicity), I simply don't mention or link to those companies. Who knows? We may kiss and make up at some point. And, it's better to just stay positive with our listings.
If you're having a problem with a seed house, drop me a line. It will help me in maintaining our list of recommended suppliers. If I have any experience in dealing with them that might be helpful, I'll pass it along.
From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening
last updated 12/27/2014