Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Definitive Guide to Safe Seeds: GMO Free Suppliers, Seed Starting Tips and Why There's More Than Monsanto to Avoid

So you're looking to start your own garden, and want to avoid the seedlings sold at just about every retailer out there in the spring that are sprayed with god knows what (like bee killing pesticides). You've heard about Monsanto and GMO's, and would like to avoid those too.  Unfortunately, the seed world is overrun with confusing information.  I even found a largely circulated list of 131 heirloom seed companies that contained many big names - even Burpee!?!  (Just because they sell heirloom seeds doesn't mean they don't also sell things from some of the most awful companies known to man)

I decided to get to the bottom of it all for some more definitive answers.  The further I went down the rabbit hole, the more conflicting the information I found.  For instance, Monsanto is commonly associated with GMO's.  What many do not know is that in 2005 Monsanto purchased a major seed supplier called Seminis.  Many Seminis seeds are GMO free. What this means is that companies can sell seeds that are GMO free, even sign the Safe Seed Pledge, but are still selling Monsanto owned seeds.  Yes, companies like Johnny's Selected Seeds can have all the pages they want on their website with staff photos and info about their employee owned company, and it's true - Monsanto does not technically own them or any other seed retailer.  Regardless of company ownership, the fact of the matter is that they still fill the Monsanto coffers by selling the Seminis seeds that Monsanto owns.  (If you poke around on the Seminis site, you will notice the contact information for many of the people on there have Monsanto email addresses.

Unfortunately, Monsanto is not the only player in the seed game consumers may be interested in avoiding.  Companies like Syngenta and Bayer (and Bayer's subsidiary "HILD") are being largely blamed for the decline of the bee population, when the pesticides they produce, neonicotinoids, were linked to "damaging the nervous system of bees and other pollinators."  They have ignored requests to halt the manufacturing of such chemicals and are challenging an EU ban in court.  More recently, the pesticides were also found that they may be harmful to the developing brains of unborn babies. Syngenta and Bayer are also big international players in the GMO game as well as producing all kinds of fun chemicals for us to consume. In fact, Syngenta is the number one producer of crop chemicals - a fact you hear rarely hear even from those rallying against Monsanto. Not long ago, Bayer was the number one producer.  It is worth mentioning that DuPont is equally nefarious, however, at least as far as I could tell they are not involved in selling any seeds directly to home gardeners.  They prefer to "limit" their poisons to commercial use only, where their products can reach everyone worldwide.

Companies like Park Seed, Burpee, Ferry Morse, Stokes...all the big ones should be avoided if any of this is concerning to you. Just for kicks I emailed Gurney's and was told, "Contractual agreements do not permit us to give the names of our vendors." What I found quite upsetting were the number of companies that have SIGNED the safe seed pledge that are still selling seeds from the companies mentioned above.  Again, because Seminis and Syngenta do produce GMO free seeds, they can get away with this.  I by no means contacted every company on this list, but I did contact just about every one that had a website listed that seemed to have a substantial seed selection, unless it was very clearly defined on their website where their seeds came from (and even some of those I double checked).  I was really disheartened to find that even smaller companies like Osborne Seed sold seeds from all three companies.

I asked each company if any of their seeds were sourced from Seminis, Syngenta or Bayer, and if any of their seeds came from China.

  • Fedco - phased out Seminis in 2009, but via email confirmation, "We do continue to offer seeds from Syngenta.  There are probably 20-25 varieties in our catalog from them them including a number of best-sellers such as Masai bean and Raven hybrid zucchine.  We have a supplier code in our catalog and all the Syngenta varieties are coded as 5, meaning they are from a multinational company that does research in genetic engineering.  We never knowingly offer any GMO varieties of seeds." 
  • Territorial Seeds - I should note that initially I was told they did not carry Syngenta seeds, and when I emailed them a second time to confirm their seeds were not from China, I got this response, "I need to correct the comment made previously about not getting seeds from Syngenta.  We do get about 25 seed varieties from Syngenta."
  • Johnny's Selected Seeds - email confirmation they still sell Seminis varieties and also Syngenta seeds
  • Jung Seed - list their Seminis varieties here
  • A Cook's Garden - not phasing out Seminis and is owned by George Ball, the same owner of Burpee (see notice here)
  • Osborne Seed Company (via email confirmation - Seminis, Syngenta and HILD)
  • Lake Valley Seed (via email confirmation - Syngenta)
  • Harmony Farm Supply and Nursery - sources their seeds from Territorial Seeds (see above) among others
Wouldn't answer yes or no:
  • New England Seed Company - refused to answer yes or no because they said they couldn't say for sure, and also couldn't say for sure whether their suppliers source seeds from China

As I am trying to lay out all the info I found in the least confusing way possible, I will move on to part two of my question for these companies, which was whether or not their seeds were sourced from China. Now, it very well could be that there are perfectly acceptable growers of seeds of all varieties - heirloom, organic, etc... in China, but two things bother me about this.  First, I am uneasy about China's reputation for regulation (or lack thereof).  Second, I am definitely not alright with companies like 
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com) saying things like

"We work with a network of about 150 small farmers, gardeners and seed growers to bring you the best selection of seeds available!  Many of our varieties we sell were collected by us on our travels abroad."  
Sounds like they really have a hand in selecting everything they sell and are in close contact with their "small" suppliers - doesn't it?  Well, this is the email response I received from them. 

"Today's seed trade is international in nature and China is a major producer of seed on the global market.  It's safe to say, a fair amount of what we purchase from distributors probably was grown in China." 
I'm sure there are people out there who will feel differently than me on this issue and still support them, but I find these two statements (the one from their website and the one they emailed me) a bit contradictory.  To me, this sounds like their distributors are so large that they don't know what is coming from where ("probably" grown...) and they didn't just say it was a few things, they said a "fair amount."  I don't have a problem with what they do, I have major issues with how they are presenting themselves.

GrowOrganic.com (aka Peaceful Valley) also responded that "depending on the seed variety and specific lot, we may have seed that was sourced from China."  It is worth noting though that they have a really great selection of organic heirloom seeds as well as lots of growing and homesteading supplies and tools.

In the interest of brevity, I will defer here to an excellent primer on seed terminology on the High Mowing Seeds site.  The bottom line is that organic heirloom seeds are most desirable, with organic open-pollinated seeds next in line.  If you are interested in saving your seeds, it is key to seek these out over hybrids, because given the proper growing conditions they will "produce seed that is genetically 'true to type,' meaning that the seed will result in a plant similar to the parent."

The good news is, there are LOTS of wonderful companies around to choose from that have excellent seed selections and have no affiliations with any of the above.  I have highlighted some of my favorites, and listed what I could confirm/research below that.  If you are a company that qualifies and would like to be added to this list, please contact me via the email icon on the site.

High Mowing Organic Seeds has an excellent selection of organic, open-pollinated varieties, and also carry organic heirloom seeds.  Over 60 varieties are produced right on their farm in Vermont, with the remaining supplied from other farms in Vermont, across the US and other organic seed producers around the world (but not China).

If you are a lover of growing tomatoes and are unfamiliar with Gary Ibsen's Tomato Fest, then I am VERY excited to introduce you!  They grow all of their seeds themselves in California, and ALL are organic and ALL are heirloom!

Sustainable Seed Company grows over 1/3 of their own seeds on their organic farm in California, and the remaining seeds are sourced as local as possible - either within California, Oregon or Washington.  They offer heirloom as well as organic heirloom seeds.  They are part of the Heritage Grains Project, and sell a nice selection of grain seeds as well (including organic grains).
Redwood Seeds is located in California, and according to their site, "We cultivate over 95% of our seed crops here, with the remaining varieties grown by several other local organic farmers.  Seeds are harvested and cleaned by hand using fans, sheets and screens."  Their seeds are organic, open-pollinated and heirloom.

Filaree Garlic Farm is a garlic lovers dream!  They carry more than 100 varieties of garlic as well as some seed potatoes and shallot sets.  Everything is certified organic and grown on their farm in Washington.
Annie's Heirloom Seeds only sells heirloom varieties, and has a nice selection of organic heirloom seeds.  They grow most rare and hard to find varieties themselves on their farm in Michigan, and also buy seeds from small farms around the US, as well as import a few from Europe.

Founded in 1975, the Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization that promotes the preservation and utilization of heirloom varieties.  Membership is not required to purchase from the online catalog, and a number of the selections there are organic. The headquarters are located in Iowa at Heritage Farm, where thousands of heirloom varieties are permanently maintained.

This company was too awesome not to mention.  Scratch and Peck Feeds makes organic, whole grain feed for chickens and livestock.  Their unprocessed feeds are made in Washington, with organic whole grains grown in the Pacific Northwest.  They also have organic grains available in bulk.

All of the following GMO-free seed companies have no ties to any of the biotech firms mentioned above, or seeds sourced from China.  Again, if you would like your company added to this list because you qualify, please contact me via the email icon on my site.  I ask that only the companies themselves contact me (not, "I know of this or that company"), so that I can be sure these facts are verified.

  • Native Seeds - a nonprofit seed conservation organization devoted to preserving aridlands-adapted seeds
  • Terroir Seeds (Underwood Gardens) - All seeds are heirloom or open-pollinated, with some organic heirloom (see product description for organic certification)
  • Westwind Seeds and Gardenscapes - all seeds are grown in the US and are chemically untreated and open-pollinated (not organic), many are heirloom
  • All Good Things Organic Seeds - all seeds are organic, some are organic heirloom with many grown on their own farm
  • Bountiful Gardens - specializing in rare varieties and medicinal herbs, all seeds are untreated, open-pollinated, and some are heirloom or organic heirloom *They do carry some Chinese herb seeds from Richters in Canada which does get them from China, but that is because it is their country of origin
  • Home Farmer - organic and untreated premium seeds
  • The Natural Gardening Company - organic and open-pollinated varieties, with some organic heirloom
  • Seeds of Change - READ FIRST!!  all seeds are organic, some are heirloom and others are open-pollinated or hybrid.  It is worth noting that while they used to be a favorite supplier of mine, they are not highlighted above (and I hesistate to even put them on here) because they were purchased by Mars, and while they have since dropped out of the battle to label GMO's, Mars initially contributed nearly $500K to defeat California's Prop 37 to label GMO's.  You can read more about it here.
  • Botanical Interests - carry nice selection of organic as well as organic heirloom (all seed are untreated, but not all are organic)
  • Eden Organic Nursery Services Inc - organic, open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of not only herbs and vegetable but also medicinal, tropical and houseplant seeds
  • Organic Sanctuary *ALL SEEDS ARE GROWN ON THEIR FARM - all are organic with many heirloom varieties
  • Seeds and Things - all seeds are heirloom (not organic), some grown on their own farm and all are from the US.
  • Seeds from Italy - heirloom varieties from Italy, some organic - they are "the exclusive US distrubutor for Franchi Seeds, Italy's oldest family-owned seed company" (Franchi Seeds was founded in 1783)
  • The Maine Potato Lady - a great source for growing organic potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic and shallots
  • Wood Prairie Farm - all organic Maine seed potatoes and vegetable seeds, many of which are grown on their farm
  • White Harvest Seed Company - all seeds are heirloom, with a small amount of organic, and some are grown there but the remaining are sourced from 5 companies (not the large biotech firms)
New Jersey:
New York:
  • Fruition Seeds - all organic and open-pollinated, grown in the Northeast for Northeast gardeners (all listed on their site)
  • Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seed Initiative - all seeds are organic, open-pollinated and biodynamic, many are grown on their farm and all are grown by farmers who practice biodynamic methods.
North Carolina:
  • Sow True Seed - some organic heirloom, some heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, plus some "ecologically grown" seed
  • White Oak Valley Farm - all heirloom, not organic *MOST ARE GROWN AND PROCESSED ON THEIR FARM with the remaining varieties sourced from small US growers
  • Cultivariable Seeds - specializes in Andean root crops and other vegetables.  *EVERYTHING IS GROWN, HARVESTED AND PACKAGED BY THEM (they are not certified organic, but do not use pesticides or herbicides)

I must say I'm a little apprehensive about posting this, given the fact that there will probably be some seasoned gardeners and farmers reading this post!  This is what has worked for me with my extremely informal set-up, and the little tips and things I've figured out from doing it year after year.  If you've never grown your own seed before, you may find this section very helpful.  

**Note that I have always lived in the Northeast so when I'm discussing direct seeding that should be taken into consideration**


Grow LightsIt really doesn't matter what lights you use.  I personally have cheapo fluorescent shop lights.  They are the full size 4 foot ones with 2 bulbs and I think they cost me about $8 each back in the day.  I have FULL SPECTRUM bulbs, which have lasted me all these years and many moves.  The bulbs will usually say of they mimic sunlight, and I did not have money for special order ones from grow supply places that cost 4x as much - I just looked for ones that say full spectrum or sunlight where they sell fluorescent bulbs and those have worked out fine.  The most important thing about your lights, whatever you use, is that they have to be able to reach within about 1/2 inch of your seedlings once they emerge!  Otherwise the seedlings will pull to the light, and you will get spindly seedlings that will flop over.  Then you have to mess around with trying to prop them up with tiny devices, and it's a pain.  Best to know off the bat that the closer you can get that light, the better!  Mine are set up on crappy tables in the basement with the shop lights hanging on adjustable chains above them.  I have two lights hanging next to each other (4 bulbs total) and even with a tray centered under each light, the plants on the outer rows will pull towards the center so I rotate the plants sometimes.  You may be able to rig something in a closet or near a window, but the window is not necessary.  You could probably even use a cheap wire shelf/rack or something to hang the lights from the wire shelf above and put the tray on the shelf below if you can't put holes in your ceiling for hooks.  But in our old house we just had those plant hooks that poke through the ceiling and they were strong enough to hold the lights.  I also have cheapo clip on shop lights (big shiny metalic spotlight type ones) with a single full spectrum bulb in them that I clip nearby just to get some extra ambient light for those plants on the outer edge.  You can use the little clear plastic greenhouse cover to keep moisure in until the seedlings emerge, but once they come up, you need to be able to get that light down to them and practically kiss the leaves!

Heat Mats - I had much better results once I started using these to regulate the soil temp and keep the seedlings nice and toasty.  These are a slightly pricier investment, but once I figured something out they've lasted for years. I've had 3 brands, and had the same problem with all.  You MUST plug them into a power strip.  For some reason they are finicky and the fuses blow in them easily, which renders them useless. Once I started using a power strip I never had a problem.  I have never used the fancier ones that you can actually adjust the temp on and whatnot - totally unnecessary in my mind.  A simple mat that stays the same temp at all times is fine. 

Seed starting mix
Hands down the best stuff I've used is the organic seedstarting mix from Gardeners Supply Company.  It makes THAT much of a difference that I'm bothering mentioning it.

Seed markers - As much as I try to avoid plastic, wooden popsicle sticks grow mold and get disgusting and the writing washes away.  On the same topic, those ecofriendly peat pots always grow moldy for me too.  I stopped using them.  A friend gave me stacks of tiny plastic pots so now I just use those over and over and write on them with a silver sharpie to mark what's in them, but before that I would break plastic forks/knives in half and write on them with a thin sharpie (you can use both ends).  NOTE: For some insane reason, writing fades on clear plasticwear.  A lesson I didn't learn until I went to plant and all my markings were gone!  WHITE plasticwear works best if you decide to go this route, and then you can use it year after year.

Spray Bottle - One with a nice and even, fine mist is very helpful for watering before seedlings emerge and when they are tiny.  If you use a mix with a lot of peat, you will see that sometimes the seeds can wash away if you just fill it with water from a watering can, but if you mist it very well, you will prevent this.

  • Plant twice as many of each plant that you want to have.  If you want 2 of a certain variety of tomato plant, try to grow at least 4 so you can choose the best plants.  People are always happy to receive the rejects! :)  
  • Within each pot/cell depending on what you use, I plant 3 seeds in a triangle.  As they emerge, I pinch off the 2 weaker ones (IF all 3 come up).  If you pull them out you may accidentally pull out the one you are trying to save by the roots - best to just pinch it between your nails and cut them off at the base.  Once the first set of true leaves grow, you can pinch off the cotyledons, which are the first leaves that will sprout but look nothing like the true leaves (they are very simple looking leaves)
  • I've never used a fancy seeding tool - just a white dish with a pair of tweezers to pluck the seeds from the dish and put into the soil. 
  • Leave 1/2 inch of space at the top, especially with mixes with a lot of peat.  It makes for much easier watering! 
  • Before filling your pots, get your potting mix evenly moist.  THIS IS HUGE!  I just keep my watering can there and have a big tub filled with all the potting mix and stir in the water a little at a time until it's moist but not soaking.  I also mix in some worm castings at this stage, but not too much - once I put in too much and it surprisingly burned my seedlings and I had to start over!
  •  Like I said, once you've planted your seeds, even immediately after they're planted (even though you've used a moist mix) mist them with a spray bottle. 
  • If you are growing tomatoes and peppers, remember that you will probably need to upgrade to a larger pot after 3-4 weeks.  Keep this in mind when thinking of soil, pots and most importantly.... SPACE UNDER YOUR LIGHTS!  Those tiny little seedlings will not always be so tiny, and you need to make sure that when they're 8 inches tall you will have room for all of them and be able to space them out!  This is not as problematic with tomatoes since even if they get spindly you can bury part of the stem and it will root from there, but depending on how small a container you start with for each plant, you will probably still need to upgrade and repot them at some point before putting outside. 
  • Square pots (whatever size - even the smallest ones) are ideal for helping to prevent your seedlings from getting rootbound.
  • Salad greens can be grown outside - no indoor lights necessary.  I do still start mine in trays so I can control protecting them from the cold if I need to, since I haven't been able to afford row covers or cloches or anything like that.  
  • Carrots should always be direct seeded and grown where they will be growing
  • Cukes and beans and squash grow very quickly, and I almost always just wait until it's warm enough to direct seed them outside.
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