Saturday, February 14, 2009

Low Quality Seeds

I highly recommend Steve Solomon's book Gardening When it Counts - Growing Food in Hard Times. One entire chapter is devoted to seeds, a topic on which Steve is very well qualified to write -- he created the Territorial Seed Company and operated the business for many years before selling it.

One of the things Steve discusses is the importance of buying seeds from conscientious sellers who actually trial the seeds they sell (by testing them for % germination and growing out some of the seeds to make sure the resulting plants are as represented).

Now I have to admit to doing a really dumb thing: last fall I bought a packet of Ferry Morse broccoli seeds at some retail store (can't recall which store). The cost was low, so the amount of cash I lost on the purchase is trivial. But I took up garden space and wasted resources (water, fertilizer, time) growing very low quality broccoli plants. It was a stupid thing to do, but there is a bright side -- it provides a great illustration for what Steve describes as "a loose flower with enormous (coarse), harsh-flavored beads that are already turning yellow and preparing to open before the flower has reached half its final size." See the photo at the top of this blog entry.

This plant is what you might expect from seeds saved by an amateur who knows nothing about cross pollination. However, in that case, the amateur would be innocent of any moral wrong-doing and would have an opportunity to learn from her mistakes. I could say that the sorry plants now growing in my garden are the result of corporate greed ... but having spent the majority of my life working with closely held businesses, most of whose owner-managers truly want to deliver an excellent product or service, I can see that the problem of sub-standard garden seeds is at least as much a result of purchasers being more concerned with cheap price than with quality. When consumers look only at the price tag and couldn't seem to care less about quality, sellers of crap succeed, and sellers of high-quality goods and services fail.

As an example of this, here are a couple of negative reviews of Territorial Seed Company, which is one of the few conscientious sellers of high-quality seeds in the U.S. --

On January 27, 2009, d687 Guthrie, OK wrote:
I was a long time customer of this company. However I will not pay $7.95 shipping to order a few packets of seeds. Come on, Territorial Seed, become user friendly again rather than making money on shipping costs. I know for a fact that you are losing good customers and they are vocal about why they are ordering elsewhere.
On January 15, 2009, briergarden Lynnwood, WA wrote:
Have not tried seeds from this company.
They have such big shipping cost that i prefer to stay away from trying their seeds. $7.50 to have to ship some seeds, come on, people.
I bought the Ferry Morse broccoli seeds for something like $1.50. But I ended up with truly crappy broccoli that is inedible (OK, if I were starving I'd eat it, but I could just as well go out and harvest wild mustard). I would gladly have paid $7.50 or $8 shipping and handling charges for high-quality, productive seeds. Considering the value of the final product, and the time and effort spent on growing the plants from seed to maturity, $7.50 or $8 is insignificant, especially since high-quality seeds of most species will be viable for more than one year.

There are at least two reasons the Ferry Morse seeds are cheaper than seeds bought from Territorial Seed Company:
1. No attention was given to protecting the plants from which the Ferry Morse seeds were taken from cross pollination with other brassicas, including wild mustard; and
2. The Ferry-Morse seeds were not labeled for % germination, so the only thing one can be (sort of) sure of is that the seeds met the relatively low standards set by the USDA germination standards.

Part of the price one pays for high-quality seeds is the time spent by experienced growers checking for undesirable varieties and getting rid of them before they cross-pollinate with the desireable plants. Another part of the price is for time spent testing seed germination and getting rid of seeds that no longer meet the consciencious company's high standards.


  1. Thanks for this--I have often suffered from under-performance of seeds I have planted, but have always blamed my own gardening practices or the vagaries of the Texas climate. It hadn't occurred to me that the quality of the seeds might actually be a major factor. I will think twice before buying those cheap seeds at the Home Depot in the future!

  2. Hey Barb, I just skimmed through your posting and have two quick things that perhaps will help you:

    1.) Home Depot & Lowes have received SO MANY calls from me about how they display their seeds (full sun, hot, humid environment) and done nothing about it that I think they just don't care (I have a long, long, long posting about it in my blog)....anyway, I never, ever buy seeds from them.

    2.) The Ferry-Morse folks are very lovely people and even if late, I am sure that if you give them a chance they will make good on their seeds. One time I got an empty package of seeds. Totally empty! Emailed them right away and they sent me another pack right away. I know it normally is just a few dollars, but it is YOUR hard earned money, plus, like you said, all the time and garden room invested in it.

    I'd say contact them and let them know about got nothing to lose :-)