Hybrid, heirloom, non-GMO? Oh my! What do all these things mean for a gardener when shopping for seeds? I’ll tell all in this lengthy post and I’ll also share some of my favorite vendors (and coupon codes!) with y’all. If you’re ready to dive into my best practices for seed shopping, grab a hot drink and let’s get going! First, we’ll start with the different types of seed that are (and aren’t) available to home gardeners.
Hybrid vs. Heirloom vs. Non-GMO Seeds
I want to preface this section with the statement that hybrid seeds are not bad seeds! Hybrid seeds also are not GMO seeds. This may sound confusing but it can be broken down as such: a hybrid seed is a lot like a dog who is purebred. You must breed these pure hybrid seeds only with other pure hybrid seeds in order to get a descendant true to their type. They aren’t genetically modified – they’re really only cross-pollinated! How simple is that? And the benefits we can reap from growing hybrid seeds in our home gardens are very high – they can boast qualities such as pest and disease resistance, earlier harvests, and premium taste as a result of careful and precise breeding by the companies who develop them.
One of the downsides of purchasing hybrid seeds is that you essentially won’t be able to save seed from your harvest for next year’s planting. If you find a hybrid that you really like, such as the Early Girl tomato, you could continue buying seed from Burpee for years to come. But should any unforeseen circumstances arise(such as what we’ve experienced in the years since COVID came about) there can be problems with stock and supply chain that may prevent you from having those plants some seasons.
Consequently there has been a huge jump in demand for heirloom seeds in the past few years. Heirlooms are rich with history and flavor, as well as being reliable and most importantly, saveable. By definition a plant must be considered stable for at least 50 years to be labeled as an heirloom, meaning you will always get the same product as the very first parent plant you started with as long as it’s been pure in pollination. Sometimes this can take a little extra effort in a home garden but it’s absolutely doable! This means you can purchase a packet of seeds your first year, harvest some of your own seed from a fruit you grew in your garden, and use that new seed you’ve saved to build your very own collection of heirloom seed stock tailored to your growing climate and conditions. Not only does this save money in the long run but it creates an incredibly hardy variety of plant that over the years becomes genetically adapted to your individual plot. To read more about the benefits of saving your own seed see my post detailing the 3 Reasons Why You Should Save Your Own Garden Seed.
Fairly recently (within the last decade or so) many heirloom and organic seed companies have also started labeling their seed stock as non-GMO. While it’s true that their seed is absolutely free of modified genetics, it’s a bit of a misnomer for the home gardener. Unbeknownst to the general public, GMO seeds aren’t available to anyone who isn’t a large-scale farmer buying wholesale seeds. We’re talking the corn and tomato farmers of Central California – they’re really the only ones who are able to purchase such costly seeds for the purpose of food supply agriculture. So in essence, your seeds being non-GMO is guaranteed whether they’re hybrid, heirloom, organic, or anything else under the sun. Southern Living wrote a great article on the non-GMO trend that can be found here.
Start Small (and keep track of what you have)
When seed shopping it’s easy to go overboard (go ahead, ask me how I know!). So when it comes to buying seed, especially as a beginner seed starter, stick with varieties that are easy to grow and keep it simple with one or two types of each vegetable or herb. Instead of buying every type of tomato on the rack, try one each of a cherry, paste and beefsteak. This way you don’t end up spending a fortune when you’re trying to save money in the first place by growing your own food!
It’s also a good idea to keep track of what seeds you’ve purchased even if they haven’t arrived yet. It may seem like overkill but I keep a spreadsheet inventory of my seed collection so that I won’t order duplicates, as well as to keep myself in check – while it’s easy to pick up a packet here or there while browsing online or at the hardware store, if I don’t have a need for it as determined by my list, I try not to buy it. Obviously there are exceptions but as my seed collection has grown I’ve tried to reign it in a bit. So when I’m ordering seeds, especially from multiple vendors, I’ll enter what I’ve purchased onto my spreadsheet to avoid getting too many duplicates in my stash. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get to this point if you are at all serious about gardening!
Storage is also an important factor of seed collecting especially if you’re wanting long term viability from your seed investments. Whether you’re purchasing or foraging your seed (or both) you will need somewhere appropriate to store them in order to keep them healthy – a seed is alive, after all, and they require relatively specific conditions in order to get the best use out of them. A shoebox in the garden shed would probably be fine but don’t you want to maximize your efforts and store them properly? They need a generally stable temperature to stay viable if they’re not being refrigerated, and dryness is imperative for long-term storage. I use a 4×6 photo storage suitcase for my seed collection and I’m very happy with the organization and ease of use this provides especially during indoor growing season. If you’d like a glimpse of my personal collection of heirloom seeds you can check out my post here!
So without further ado (and in no particular order), here are my top recommendations for seed suppliers!
Renee’s Garden Seeds
Renee’s is a wonderful resource for seeds online and in-store. They’re one of the first companies I ordered from and I still get a few things from them every year. The owner curates beautiful artwork for their packaging as well as their publications, which are a joy to read; and they’ve published a handful of garden-focused cookbooks which I can’t wait to read (I’m impatiently waiting for their arrival in the mail!)
They don’t necessarily focus on heirlooms but their selection contains many open-pollinated and organic vegetable and herb seeds as well as a gorgeous selection of cut flowers. Their products can be found online but I’ve found them at my local co-op as well.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Baker Creek is a very popular and successful seed company, and for good reason. They have a selection that could be considered excessive but is amazingly diverse and obscure. They specialize in heirlooms and they have beautifully curated packet and catalog photography. They are widely praised by many home gardeners and are often the first vendor recommended on forums and videos.
Personally, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Baker Creek. Often I will order a handful of items from them just because they have rare items that are fun and colorful (their web address is, after all, rareseeds.com). However, they don’t offer a ton of information on growing these varieties and sometimes there is some trial and error when you are raising seedlings of these more obscure types. Namely, the (inconveniently large) packets contain only the most concise growing instructions.
Their seeds also come in quantities that are much more than I will ever need or use, but admittedly are fun for sharing if you have the opportunity to do so. This comes at the cost of more seed – you end up paying sometimes twice as much for their seed than other companies. If it’s a specialty item, I’m totally fine with that! However, I’ll usually save my money for a company who can give me a smaller amount that can get me started building my own heirloom seed stock.
I like to play with new cultivars in my garden and SeedsNow is my favorite way to accomplish just that! The greatest benefit and one of my favorite reasons to shop their store is they have seeds available in smaller quantities at discount prices. This means you can try something new without spending the whole $3-$4 on a pack of seeds you may not end up liking. For me, this includes things that I’m not sure my family would eat a lot of, as well as plants that are harder to germinate that I want to experiment with. Thanks to SeedsNow I am able to purchase new items in a small and very affordable quantity.
I have been ordering from SeedsNow for nearly five years and I have nothing but great things to say about them. I have always had amazing germination and results from the seeds I purchase from them and I am never disappointed by their heirloom selection. They may not have many super-obscure types like Baker Creek, but they have all the tried and true varieties of fruits, veg, and herbs that a beginner seed starter could ever want!
Luckily for you, my dear reader, Whistling Rooster Homestead is an affiliate with SeedsNow! Click here to shop and receive a 10% discount on your entire order, and click this link to receive free shipping!
I first ordered from Territorial on the recommendation of my dear grandfather, an avid gardener, when we moved to the homestead in 2019. They have a wonderful selection of all kinds of seeds and they also publish a very informative newsletter that I enjoy reading on a regular basis. I love when companies promote education alongside their products and Territorial Seed is the best of the best. I enjoy reading their print catalog every year because there’s information to be gleaned from every page. They also have a library of growing guides and other resources on their website that are absolutely amazing!
If you’re anything like me and you’d like to go strictly heirloom MIgardener is going to be your BFF! I have been watching Luke’s educational YouTube channel since 2017 and I thoroughly enjoyed his book The Autopilot Garden. In 2018 he opened a brick and mortar shop in Port Huron, MI and sells a wide variety of 100% heirloom seed stock as well as merchandise. Not only do they carry a good variety, they are also priced to sell at just $2 a packet for most products. If you’d like to gain a reliable source for tried and true heirlooms head over to their site.
Snake River Seed Cooperative
Allow me to introduce one of my absolute favorite seed companies – Snake River Seed Cooperative! They are local to my home state of Idaho and they provide a wide selection of heirloom and localized seeds that I have yet to see from another company. I love that the seeds they provide will be tailored to my zone, and as such they offer varieties that are fare better in the short and cool growing season of our region.
Snake River is a collective, which means their inventory is supplied by family-owned and operated farms which have taken the Safe Seed Pledge to ensure a better seed supply in our nation. They began as a seed library and expanded to supply high quality, home-grown seeds to gardeners everywhere. They’re my kind of company!
Seed Savers Exchange
SSE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds. They’ve been around since the 70’s and as their name states, they host an online exchange website that’s free to join and browse. They also list a selection of their voluminous library for public sale, offering hundreds of lovely heirloom varieties for purchase. I love that they’re especially focused on the origin of their seeds and they share the story behind each cultivar whenever possible.
Alongside their extensive inventory they offer a variety of programs and resources for home gardeners nationwide. Visit their website here.
BONUS – TomatoFest
I’ve included TomatoFest as a bonus vendor on this list because they deal solely in heirloom tomatoes. They are my favorite supplier for tomato seeds and I’ve always had fantastic results from their product! Whistling Rooster Homestead is an affiliate with TomatoFest and I’m happy to refer you to their website for superior selection, prices, and customer service.
There you have it! I hope you enjoy perusing my favorite seed suppliers in preparation for your next growing season. If this is your first time starting your garden from seed you can check out my comprehensive guide to seed starting.
I would love to hear what your top varieties are. Please feel free to share your favorites and where you got them in the comments below!