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Top 10 Heirloom Seed Catalogs

By Pathways Magazine

With so many great seed catalogs to choose from, selecting a handful of favorites isn’t easy. We picked the catalogs below because of the leadership they provide for creating a sustainable food system, their inspiring stories of their beginnings, and our Pathways staff experience with them over many years. We also enjoy their beautiful covers and detailed growing instructions for each plant. None of these seeds are genetically engineered or grown with chemicals. These seeds are open pollinated, meaning that you can save the seed yourself and it will come true year after year. Some seeds are also locally grown, meaning that the seed is from plants that have adapted themselves to the climate, soil conditions, and ecosystem of the local region. Most of these catalogs are available online as free downloads. Happy planting!

  1. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Jere Gettle always had a passion for growing things. He planted his first garden when he was 3, and at the age of 17 in 1998, he printed the first small Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog. Called “the Indiana Jones of Seeds” by The New York Times for his international travels to collect seed from around the world, Gettle’s company now offers the largest selection of heirloom varieties in the U.S.A. Featured in Oprah’s magazine, O, and Martha Stewart Living, Baker Creek has become a tool to promote and preserve agricultural and culinary heritage. In 2011, Gettle launched the National Heirloom Exposition, a not-for-profit event centered around the purefood movement, heirloom vegetables, and anti-GMO activism. Pathways attended the festival, held last September in Santa Rosa, California, with 14,000 people from around the world. (You can view our photos on our Facebook page.) Gettle also publishes Heirloom Gardener magazine, and has restored the Wethersfield, Connecticut, landmark, Comstock, Ferre & Co., the oldest continuously operating seed company in New England. He is now writing several books for Hyperion, a division of ABC/Disney.

  2. Territorial Seed Company. Territorial Seed Company gets the number two spot for its thorough growing instructions and its beautiful covers. First published in 1979, the seed company and catalog is owned by Tom and Julie Johns. Their earliest seedproduction crops were grown in isolation in neighbors’ backyards. In wintertime, the mail-order seed business operated in a drafty warehouse, where customers waited their turn on the telephone party line and neighbors, who seasonally helped in the warehouse, took turns chopping kindling to keep the woodstove stoked. Located in Cottage Grove, Oregon, Territorial’s catalog cover and seed packet artwork are by local artist Lavonne Tarbox-Crone.

  3. Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Like anything grown from seed, Johnny’s Selected Seeds had the smallest of beginnings. It put down its first roots in relative obscurity in spring 1973, when founder Rob Johnston Jr., at age 22, started the fledgling seed company in a New Hampshire farmhouse attic with $500 in savings. The employees currently own a third of the company’s stock, and are on track for 100 percent ownership by 2016. Johnny’s is especially known for its knowledgeable and helpful phone operators.

  4. Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seeds. Turtle Tree sells 100 percent open-pollinated vegetable, herb and flower seeds, all grown using biodynamic and organic practices both from their own seed garden and by other biodynamic farmers and gardeners. This small, nonprofit seed company is a part of Camphill Village in Copake, New York, an intentional community which includes people with developmental disabilities.

  5. Fedco Seed Catalog. Fedco is a cooperative— one of the few seed companies so organized in the United States. Because it doesn’t have an individual owner or beneficiary, profit is not its primary goal. Consumers own 60 percent of the cooperative, and worker members own the other 40 percent. Consumer and worker members share proportionately in the cooperative’s profits through their annual patronage dividends.

  6. Seed Savers Exchange. Each year thousands of seed varieties are exchanged among backyard preservationists through the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, allowing participants to connect to our garden heritage, find varieties suited to their particular region, enjoy the diversity of heirloom varieties, and source material to use in localized breeding projects. These preservation methods keep many open-pollinated and heirloom varieties circulating in the hands of gardeners and farmers, making them available to everyone.

  7. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is located near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in the gently rolling foothills of central Virginia. It offers more than 700 varieties of vegetable, flower, herb, grain and cover crop seeds.

  8. Botanical Interests. Botanical Interests started because the family owners realized that the venerable tradition of American families passing their gardening lore, techniques and even secrets from generation to generation was fading, so they decided to help preserve all that knowledge. Every Botanical Interests seed packet is designed to help gardeners succeed and create their own traditions. Featuring gorgeous botanical artists’ renderings of each variety, every packet provides a wealth of information, inside and out.

  9. Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply. Peaceful Valley not only grows heirloom plants for seed, it assists in growing new organic farmers through their Freshman Farmer program. Its website features videos, a blog and extensive guidelines on growing your garden, as well as information on homesteading crafts, such as canning your harvest!

  10. High Mowing Organic Seeds. What started in 1996 as a one-man operation in Wolcott, Vermont, is now a thriving business making available to home gardeners and commercial growers more than 600 heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid varieties of vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seed. True to its roots, High Mowing Organic Seeds continues to grow many of the varieties it sells on its 40-acre farm.

Why buy and support heirloom seed companies?

The loss of heirloom and landrace crop varieties over the last centur y is well documented. Consolidation in the seed industry, changes in breeding methods and technology, restrictive intellectual property practices, and the loss of wild and farming land to development all contribute to the erosion of the plant genetic materials that are essential to sustaining life.

In addition to this loss in genetics, there has been a concurrent loss in the base of knowledge and skills necessary to properly steward and improve plant genetics in an ecologically and ethically sound manner. Farmers, once the primary seed stewards around the globe, have rapidly been removed from the seed circle—no longer participating in plant breeding or conservation. Only a few generations ago, the practices of on-farm seed saving and basic crop improvement were not only common, but necessary. While university and private-sector involvement in seed systems has provided much gain, it has also created a field of specialization that has left the farmer as an “end user” of a product instead of an active participant in building and maintaining plant genetic health and diversity. The diversity of our domesticated

plant genetics—flavor, color, abundance, nutrition—is a direct result of the relationship between farmers and their crops. The unhealthy trends in seed systems put us at risk of losing our seed heritage, and the skills necessary to conserve, reinvigorate and improve this heritage for future generations.

From the Organic Seed Alliance.