While I do believe that good gardening practices will matter more than what type of seed you purchase, there are a few guidelines every gardener should know. This advice mainly refers to annual garden seeds (vegetable, herbs, fruits, etc.). Most seed companies will send you free catalogs at your request.
Days to maturity
Simply put, this means how many days it takes from the time the seed germinates to the time you can use a part of the plant, i.e. pick the beans or cut the flower. The number of days given is only a general guideline. Some seed companies will list seeds as days to maturity “from transplant.” This means that the seed is started indoors and “days to maturity” time is counted from when the seedling, not the seed itself, is actually put in the ground.
If the days to maturity is from transplant, then you will need to consider the extra time it takes for the seed to get to the transplant state when starting your seeds.
For example, one seed company lists Early Girl tomato as 52 days from transplant and Beefsteak as 90 days from transplant. A 90-day tomato will probably end up being at least120 days altogether when considering starting it from seed.
So, you would need to start this 90day tomato much earlier than the 52day tomato, or pray for a long hot year, if you want it to ripen. If you are not sure about how seed companies are determining this number, ask them.
Treated vs. untreated seed
Treated seed means that the seeds have been treated with a chemical that helps guard against fungus, bacteria and insect damage, or to assist in the initial growth of the plant.
This treatment is aimed to promote a higher germination rate, specifically in less than ideal planting conditions. I do not prefer to use chemicals and always order untreated seed.
If you follow the planting instructions for your seed carefully, you should be pleased with the germination of untreated seed. Remember, soil temperature and structure, improper planting depth, and old seed could all impair germination. If you are concerned about low germination, plant extra seeds and thin the seedlings later if too many germinate. It should also be noted that there are organic seed treatments as well.
Hybrid vs. open pollinated vs. heirloom
Heirloom: A seed variety that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Open-pollinated: A seed variety that is pollinated by natural means such as insects, birds or wind.
Hybrid: A controlled cross-pollination of two or more species of plant by humans. The cross is done to achieve and stabilize a desirable characteristic.
All of these options are fine, but your values will determine what type of seed to choose. By definition, all heirloom seeds must be open-pollinated. Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds can be saved and replanted the following year, which is more economical in the long run. Whereas, hybrid plants will produce a seed that will not grow consistently true to its own traits but will revert back to one of its parent’s genes.
Hybrids, however, offer some characteristics, that are hard to find in open-pollinated plants, such as disease resistance, color traits, or high production. Hybrid seeds are usually more expensive since humans must do the annual work of cross-pollinating.
A short note on GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seed GMOs are, in my opinion, untested and unnatural, and leaves serious questions as to the long-term effects of such scientific work. Seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge do not knowingly carry any Genetically Modified (GMO) seed.
There are many companies that offer good seed and a few that I have worked with and am happy with are: Fedco (Maine), Seed Savers Exchange (Iowa), Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Maine), Jungs (Wisconsin), High Mowing (Vermont), Pinetree (Maine), Territorial Seed (Oregon). For more info, please visit Nourish’s website https://nourishfarms.org, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, and/or call them at (920) 627-4769.
Jake Lambrecht is the Urban Farm Manager & Culinary Coordinator at Nourish in Sheboygan.