January 10, 2012

My Favorite Seed Sources

Is it just me? Or are there more seed catalogs arriving in the mail than ever before?

Clearly our new digital work has not affected the catalog printing industry. As most of us know, there is still that special 'something' about paper, when it comes to some things.  I would bet my yellow variegated clivia that most people read the paper catalogs , circling favorite choices, crafting a final list, and then places an order on-line.

Every blog on the planet is featuring their favorite catalogs, so I will approach this subject differently. I thought that I might share with you some of my more unconventional sources for seed. Some of these you may already be familiar with, others maybe not so much.  Either way, I encourage you to support these small business, or plant societies - for the truth is that there are very few sources where one can get truly unique seeds. Most heirloom and major seed companies purchase their seeds overseas, in China or all from the same source. Look for those who grow their own, breed their own, or collect responsibly from the wild. Be wary of most seed banks offering "heirloom seed" in large lots that you can bury in the cellar - most are scams, or at the very best, simply selling old seed of out dated varieties that will never germinate once the Mayan calendar runs out.

Here are some of my current, favorite sources - where many of us plant enthusiasts like to purchase the seeds that interest us. If you are looking for something different, unique or something really ...

challenging, do try some of these sources. for those hard-to-find and even the rarest of species to grow in your gardens and collections. Yes, I will admit that some of these sources sell only challenging seeds, but if one follows directions, and uses Google properly to search for the proper planting sowing directions, success is not as impossible as you may have previously encountered. Go for it!

Broadly speaking, I have arranged my favorite seed sources into a few large categories -

Commercial Seed Sources

These are the big, glossy or newsprint mega catalogs, most are fine sources, and you can choose from a tall stack of choices based on your own personal criteria list - organic, heirloom, hybrid, GMO, non GMO, whatever - go have fun! The upside is that most of these large companies carry fresher seed, but the downside is that most carry the same varieties, and have a limited selection, focusing on the easiest annuals and vegetables to grow.  My favorite commercial sources? That's easy. Thompson & Morgan, because of their variety, and Johnny's Selected Seeds because they grow most of their own seed and varieties right here in New England, and they breed many of their own varieties rather than focusing older varieties ( i.e. beyond tomatoes, "heirloom" varieties are not always the best choice for many reasons and especially if you are growing organically - most older varieties are more susceptible to virus' and diseases, and less flavorful - so do your research).

Professional Sources

This is where the commercial growers purchase seed, and although not an option for most of you, I only mention these for one reason - in case you were wondering where you could buy seed for fabulous over-performing plants which often cost as high as $8 or $9.00 at the nursery ( think - Proven Winners brand). The cost is high for these plants for a simple reason, they are the best performing varieties of annuals ( yes, they are registered and trademarked) but don't let that freak you out. It's necessary. Really, it's the only way that companies like Proven Winners can afford to research, develop and distribute their intellectual property and at the same time, make a profit so that they can find, develop and market more.  They are a business and need to make a profit. 

This is why you cannot find those awesome varieties, some which you may have paid $4.99 a pot for at your local nursery, as seed that you can grow at home. Even your local nursery can't buy that special seed, they are required to purchase their plants as pre-started plugs from even a larger wholesaler who is licensed to grow these plants into plug stage, or as  tissue cultured baby plants.  Many travel a very long distance  by the time they are planted into a pot at your nursery. Currently, many come from Africa where warmer temperatures allow an unheated environment, and at the same time providing tribal cultures with new opportunities.  So really, in many ways, we are supporting a very good thing. 

Plant Enthusiast Sources

Now for the good stuff - Here I include specialist nurseries, those mom and pop growers focusing on their own, unique  breeding programs, independent plant collectors who travel to Tibet, or Nepal to collect seed of which one would buy a sponsor collection from, or those sources where, not unlike crowd sourcing, pull together many collectors of seed, such as those offered as a membership benefit in various plant societies (seed exchanges) which offer both wild collected seed, as well as seed grown in members' gardens. A membership in a plant society that offers the benefit of an annual seed list is one of the finest sources for the most unusual seed. So if you are a collector, or more serious with your plant choices, that would be my first recommendation.

Businesses with interesting seed: ( all ship worldwide).

Jelitto Seeds 
( check out their pre-chilled perennial seeds - by far the best way to grow the most challenging of perennials from seed - $18 per packet may seem high, but imagine 200 delphiniums that grow 6 feet tall at that price, and you will quickly see the value.

I have not ordered from them yet, but I have friends who just did, so I will let you know - interesting material.

Silverhill Seeds ( South African plants and bulbs)
Almost forgot this one! the best, and perhaps the only source for responsibly collected wild seed of South African bulbs and plants. Most of my collection has been raised from seed purchased from Silverhill.

Barnhaven Primroses
For fine strains of garden primroses especially the polyanthus types, which are difficult to find today in nurseries ( most have no stems) these are the classic, and finest strains with excellent germination.

Chris Chadwell Seeds

My good friend Mr. Chadwell is one of the last of the great explorers collecting today. His specialty? The Himalaya ) Tibet and Nepal. This is where many of the world's most important collections get their material ( i.e. botanic gardens). If you see a number at a Botanic Garden that starts with CC and a four code number, it's a Chadwell collection. But yes, you can own those very same plants - just purchase a share in one of Chris Chadwell's expeditions, and you too could get box in the mail of all sorts of amazing seeds ( I just got one this weekend, and I am so excited!).

Plant Societies with Seed Exchanges 

American Conifer Society

Just Google any plant type ( Peony, Irish Narcissus, etc, and check and see if they have a seed exchange, and although many seeds are challenging, I guarantee that each society will be more than happy to help you with guidelines on how to grow your seeds.  Some are much easier than you may believe ( EXAMPLE - sow a pot in the autumn, leave outdoors in the snow, and by spring, you will have seedlings - that's how many primrose seeds grow).


  1. Hey Matt. It's Annie's Heirloom seeds, No relation to Annie Hayes of Annie's Annuals.

    I love Chiltern from England and Silverhill Seeds from South Africa. A friend just lent me a big heat mat so I'll have to give some of the places you list a try and maybe order some more seeds.

    Growing from seed is the best part of gardening for me. :)

  2. I just placed a $60 order with Plant World. I blame you.

  3. I've been ordering from Plant World for several years now, and have nothing but praise for them. High quality seed with great germination, and a really exciting selection. I simply won't grow Aquilegia from anyone else anymore.

  4. Thanks for the links!

    Great blog!

  5. Great post, just want to add that I have gotten seeds from Plant World and they are quite good, also in addition to Silverhill (a personal favorite of mine!), Lifestyle seeds also has some pretty cool South African species worth checking out, quality is also good. Derry Watkin's Special Plants in the UK has a few odd things, this is where I got the light colored form of Silene armeria, "Aprodite", never saw that in the US before. And like the first commenter, I am quite fond of Chilterns, even though at this point the minute print in their catalog will probably be a good reason for me to finally get reading glasses.

  6. Hey Matt! I've ordered from Plantworld for many years and can highly reccommend them! I also visited their nursery one year a while back. The display gardens are set up like the globe where all plants from a certain area are grown together! It was pretty unique! Growing from seed nevers looses it's excitement and fascination for me!


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