What You Need to Know Before Buying From a Seed Catalogue

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

A selection of seed packets

I love choosing seeds for the coming year.  Spending time browsing through the pages of various seed catalogues is a dreamy experience: it is all about buying into the vision of summer filled with perfect crops and a beautiful garden.  This year, I got my orders in early and now have my treasure-box of seed packets, all neatly sorted, waiting for the weather to warm up sufficiently to get sowing. 

F1, Hybrid, Open Pollinated, Heirloom, Heritage, Organic, AAS, AGM - there are many terms to understand and each can give you important clues about whether that variety is best suited for your garden.

In the video & article below, we highlight commonly used seed catalogue terms, explain each one, and show how you can use the information to help choose the best seeds to grow in the coming year.

We recently surveyed our members and found a variety of factors influenced their choice of seeds:

  • 34% looked for Specific Varieties which were only available from a particular source
  • 25% ordered based on Seed Company Brand, choosing a trusted supplier they had used before
  • 20% chose Organic Seed as their main criteria
  • 15% cited Price as the main determining factor
  • The remaining 6% listed a variety of reasons, with two themes clearly emerging: quality of germination and ‘open pollinated’ varieties (explained below).

At this point, it is worth explaining a few terms which are commonly used when describing seed.  Some are very specific and have standards or legislation behind them (like organic or GM) and others are more open to interpretation (heirloom etc):

  • F1 varieties, or hybrids are created by crossing two parent varieties to create a new one with claimed superior traits to either of the parents.  Because of the way these are created, the seed is more expensive as it has to be re-created from the parent plants each year and only the company that produces them knows what those parents are.  There is no point saving seed from F1 varieties as it will not be the same as the original.
  • Genetically Modified (GM) seeds are created by manipulating the genes of the plants in laboratories and there is very justified concern that these traits could contaminate other crops making them sterile.  Thankfully at the moment GM seeds aren’t licensed for sale to amateur gardeners in the EU.
  • Open Pollinated varieties are  ones which can produce seed which you can reuse year after year.  This is how new varieties developed through most of history as plants cross-pollinate and this results in a healthy bio-diversity of seed types: particularly important as the different traits can often have better resistance to various crop diseases.  These are also sometimes called heirloom varieties although this term does get used more broadly.
  • Organic seed is grown by certified organic means without pesticides, fertilisers or herbicides and must also be packaged without being treated with fungicides.
Seed packets

When flicking through catalogues, it seems that there are endless varieties – exciting to those who have been growing for years but sometimes quite daunting to people new to home-growing.  Yet, the number of varieties now available is considerably limited compared to what it used to be.  In the European Union a ‘common catalogue’ of seeds was set up in 1966 requiring costly registration of any varieties to be commercially sold.  This has had a devastating effect on the diversity of seed available and Garden Organic believe that over 98% of our vegetable varieties have now been lost.  This is why they (and many other organisations around the world) have set up a Heritage Seed Library which you subscribe to and receive free ‘gifts’ of seed samples.  I have even heard it reported that you can often find more European vegetable varieties in America than Britain! 

I am increasingly buying from catalogues such as the Real Seed Catalogue that exclusively sell open-pollinated varieties.  They not only guarantee that all their seed can be saved but give step-by-step instructions on their website about how to do it.  It offers the experience of purchasing from a family of home growers, much like the family seed collections that abound in the US, and I like that.  I do also enjoy shopping around a bit and purchase organic seed from companies such as Tamar Organics and The Organic Gardening Catalogue.  I don’t inherently have strong objections to F1 varieties where there is a good reason to use them: for example, sweet-corn F1 strains are in my opinion better yielding and tasting than the few heirloom varieties you can get (though you should never grow two varieties close together as they can cross pollinate and produce less good results).  But for the most part, I like to use heritage varieties and there are more than enough of these to try.   For a good list of suppliers around the world, take a look at the ‘Commercial Heirloom Seed Sources and Trading Forums’ section towards the bottom of this blog page.

So what criteria do I use when selecting seed?  My personal order of priorities is:

  1. Organic
  2. Open-pollinated
  3. Interesting varieties, particularly those which are well suited to my garden climate and soil type

In my opinion choosing seed is too enjoyable to be limited solely by price or the quantity in a packet.  You are buying the anticipation of new growth, different flavours and interesting varieties.  I enjoy reaching for my box of seeds right through the year and to my mind that justifies the expense.  Choosing seed is a luxury to be enjoyed, as well as an investment for the coming year.  Now, if the weather would just warm up a little...!

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Show Comments


"Many thanks. My maternal grandfather was a professional gardener in Portsmouth and, as a kid, he taught me much of what he knew ..... for example: "never plant out your spring bedding plants until the lilac is in bloom .... you might still get a frost but it won't be strong enough to harm your plants" and I wondered why I was unable to buy seed that he had introduced to me. Now I know the answer. If I may, I will use the data in your article and write to my MP (who, incidentally, is a member of UKIP although sits in Parliament as an Independent Member."
Douglas A. Beard on Saturday 7 February 2009
LEEANN on Sunday 8 February 2009
"LeeAnn, Try a Texas based seed company such as http://www.willhiteseed.com/index.php. Good luck!"
Jeremy Dore on Monday 9 February 2009
"Douglas, Good idea about writing to your MP - although the European MEP might be an even better bet. You can find their contact details at http://www.europarl.org.uk/uk_meps/MembersMain.htm"
Jeremy Dore on Monday 9 February 2009
"We've always grown our veggies. organically now we are also having a go at growing them biodynamically, in other words in tune with the moon's cycle. you can see our blog at http://intunewithmoon.findhornpress.com/"
Carol on Monday 9 February 2009
"terra edibles is a wonderful seed company in ontario canada, i bought 11 types of tomato seeds from them last year and every seed took i had a gaggle of plants, it was wonderful"
sarah on Friday 20 February 2009
"I've use moon planting since 2004 and it really does give good results, now none of us are perfect and get to plant everything as is ideal in moon planting but for setting seed it really is the best thing. I always try to use local seed but that's not always practical, I have found that most of the good seed companies now offer a range of organic seed however this does seem to be quite limited. Duchy Originals offer quite a good range and are availabe here in Ireland and online. I also try to us seed that are from varieties that are heritage or at risk of being lost "
Colleen on Saturday 28 February 2009
"Does anyone have any suggestions of Vegan owned seed companies in the United States? I live in PA and would really like to support a vegan owned business when purchasing for my new garden. :)"
Heather on Sunday 15 March 2009
"it seems to be getting nore difficult to find tobacco mosiac virus resistant cultivers in my area(tomatoes and peppers) . have any suggestions? I live in thee central ohio area of the u.s."
james claggett on Friday 23 April 2010
"I really want to grow GM seeds as they are far superior. Is it possible to have them sent from the us for personal use?"
Harry Britten on Friday 10 February 2017

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