What To Know Before Buying Vegetable and Flower Seeds

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When it's time to start buying seeds for next season's garden, consider these factors before you decide where and how to spend your garden budget.

When I was little, the arrival of the annual Toys ‘R Us Christmas catalog was one of the most exciting days of the whole year. I’d grab my favorite pink highlighter and excitedly circle everything inside that I hoped Santa would bring me.

I remember my mother laughing when she saw I’d highlighted nearly everything on the page, and her telling me that she wasn’t sure if Santa could fit all of those things in his sleigh.

Now that I’m an adult, the parade of seed catalogs that fills my mailbox every fall is just as much fun. I’ve switched to a red Sharpie now, but I still circle way more than will fit in Santa’s sleigh — or in my garden!

You Need New Seeds If…

To get the most out of your seed purchases, first see what you have left over from last gardening season. Toss last season’s seed if:

  • The seeds weren’t stored properly. Seeds need to be kept in a cool, dry, dark location to remain viable.
  • The seeds are more than three years old. The germination rate tends to decrease significantly after a few years even if your seeds are stored properly.
  • You’ve lost the labels and can’t identify what you have.
  • There aren’t many left in the packet from last season, especially if the seeds are older and their germination rate will be lower.
  • They’re moldy or look damaged.

Three Ways To Save on Seeds

  1. It’s easy to over-buy seeds, especially when they cost just a few dollars per packet. Consider going in on a seed order with a friend and split them when they arrive. Did you really need all 25 of those tomato seeds?
  2. You could also join a seed swap to share your extras with others and pick up a few new varieties you’ve wanted to try. Local gardening groups on Facebook are a great place to find seed swaps in your community. Or you could join the Seed Savers Exchange to swap with people around the country. Sometimes the seeds you receive won’t turn out as well as fresh ones, or the variety might be misidentified. But if you’re getting them for free and you’re flexible, it’s certainly worth a try.
  3. You could also harvest seeds from the fruits, vegetables and flowers you’re already growing and save them for the following year. Christy Wilhelmi, author of Grow Your Own Mini Fruit Garden, says she stores her seeds in wide-mouthed screw-top jars. She drops a few silica gel desiccant packets into the bottom of the jar to absorb moisture and stores them in her refrigerator.

Are Inexpensive Seeds from Mass Merchants OK to Buy?

The short answer is, yes. The seed packets you see at local home improvement, grocery and hardware stores are perfectly fine as long as they’re stored in a temperature-controlled environment and their expiration date hasn’t passed.

“Seed racks kept outdoors are exposed to nighttime humidity which is not a good thing for stored seeds,” says Barbara Pleasant, author of Homegrown Pantry and Starter Vegetable Gardens.

“You can find many excellent varieties of vegetable seeds on retail shelves, often at a lower price. Green Ice or Little Gem lettuce seeds from a garden center or mass merchant will be just as good as those you buy mail order.”

The same can be said for popular flowers commonly grown from seed, including zinnias, celosia, cleome, cosmos, marigolds, milkweed, nasturtium and sweet peas. Many can be started under lights indoors so the seedlings are large enough to be transplanted outdoors as soon as the weather warms in spring.

However, if you’re on the hunt for more unusual seeds, mail order sources will be your best bet.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is one of the largest sources for unique and rare vegetable, fruit and flower seeds in the U.S. Pink and white striped Chioggia beets, Japanese winged beans and giant cactus-type fringed zinnias are a few distinctive seeds you’ll find at this one-of-a-kind mail order seed company.

Select Seeds also offers a broad selection of organic seeds, natives, heirloom flowers and unusual flowering vines. They give you the option to purchase many varieties as seeds or small potted plants.

Are Organic Seeds Worth the Money?

If maintaining an organic landscape and eating organically grown produce is important to you, then it makes good financial sense to spend the money on organic seeds.

Wilhelmi starts her own vegetable garden every year from untreated organic seeds. “That means they haven’t been dipped in or sprayed with chemical pesticides, herbicides or fungicides before packaging,” she says.

This detail is especially important for seeds of edible plants. You’ll buy organic strawberry seeds for the same reasons you’ll buy organic strawberries at the grocery store. “Buying organic seeds also means you are supporting organic farms which typically use less water, limit their fertilizer runoff and are better stewards of the soil compared to commercial non-organic agriculture,” Wilhelmi says.

Being a loyal customer is the best way to support those growers.

What to Watch Out For

There are thousands of seeds retailers online. Not all are reputable. Ask your gardening friends for their recommendations, or shop at your local garden centers whenever possible.

If a plant’s picture looks too good to be true, it probably is. Rainbow striped roses and purple watermelons exist only in art, not in the garden. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fool inexperienced buyers with enhanced images.

Do a Google Images search of the questionable plant to see if the pictures from other sellers look similar. If not, don’t waste your money.

Shipping costs can sometimes be higher than the seeds themselves. Check the total in your cart before you get too far. And take advantage of any sales offered to offset the cost of shipping.

Susan Martin
Susan Martin is a lifelong gardener who enjoys sharing her passion for plants, gardening and the business of horticulture with fellow plant enthusiasts across North America. She has spent over two decades working in the horticulture industry on new plant development, garden design, sales, marketing and consulting. Susan has received visitors from around the world in her home garden which has been featured in numerous gardening publications. Her goal is to inspire and educate people about how to garden every day.