Organic Vegetable Seeds: Are they Worth the Price?

Posted by on Jul 13, 2015 in Grow Better Greens Podcast | Comments Off on Organic Vegetable Seeds: Are they Worth the Price?

In Episode 4, we dive into questions about shopping for organic vegetable seeds. Because our seeds are labeled differently from our food, our approach is different when shopping for organic seeds. We’ll explain in detail how food labeling differs from seed labeling, and we’ll be sure to point out the highlights. Did you know that a good portion of the certified organic food you buy is NOT grown from certified organic seeds? And that’s only the beginning…

You can listen, or download for later here:

Organic Vegetable Seeds: Are they Worth the Price?

The Truth About Organic Food and Seeds1:32
How Seeds are Labeled Differently than Food6.07
Reasons For and Against Planting From Seed
A How-to Video All About Starting Seeds for Transplants
How, Why, and When to Thin Your Sprouts
Varieties, Hybrids & Heirlooms: A Seed Glossary7:10
Genetically Modified Seeds18:02
Understanding the Back of a Seed Packet
A Few Words About Aesthetics
Kid-Friendly Seeds
Backyard Brainstorm: Best Advice for Storing Seeds26:45

View the full transcription of this episode here.

The Truth About Organic Vegetable Seeds and Food

In the United states, we pay top dollar for our organic foods, especially those that are labeled through the organic certification process. But guess what? Most of those foods are grown from non-organic seeds!

I know this first hand, having worked on a certified organic farm here in Vermont. The reason behind this odd little blip is that there are simply not enough certified producers of organic seeds supplying the market. Farmers would have to pay a whole lot of money to purchase enough seeds in bulk to grow food for their community (and in all fairness, some do – the cost is simply passed off to the buyer.)

The other reason that this is an accepted practice is that how the food is raised has more bearing on the overall quality of the harvest than the seed it was started from. Further, with better labeling practices in place, growers can source seeds they feel good about without needing to rely on the over-arching umbrella of ‘organic’.

How Seeds Are Labeled Differently than Food:

Buying seeds today is a much clearer experience than the cloudy, minefield of shopping for food in our supermarkets. While we all ride out the ups and downs of fighting for better labeling of our food supply (is it genetically modified or not? What about pesticides? Pasteurization?) it turns out that seeds are way ahead of the game.

I am definitely not saying that all is perfect in the seed supply world! I just find it fascinating that you can actually get much more specific information as a food grower than you can as a food buyer. For example, if I want to be certain that my veggies don’t include gmos and were never treated with pesticides, I must buy those that are labeled organic, as it’s currently the only safety measure in place.

But if I want to buy seeds that are gmo and pesticide-free, I just have to read the packet or other literature.

I don’t have to increase my budget to be absolutely certain – I can choose which issues are important to me and decide if certain non-organic seeds fit the bill.

Reasons For and Against Planting From Seed:

Some plants like to be started directly in the garden from seed, while others can tolerate being transplanted. In fact one sign that a plant is better off being direct sown is that it inexplicably dies soon after you place it in the soil.

Have you ever had that happen?

To know if that was the true cause, you’d have to plant another one of the same variety, but as gently as you can this time – without disturbing the roots in the slightest.

Root disturbance is non-negotiable for certain plants and the most common reason that a plant doesn’t survive being transplanted!

To prevent this, you can transplant the list below with tremendous care, or just plant them from seed instead. Planting from seed is way cheaper and often easier.

Plus, the selection is much more interesting over in the seed aisle:

Cucumbers & Summer Squash
Winter Squash
Peas & Beans
Long-rooted vegetables, like Carrots, Beets, Parsnips and Radishes

(Btw, some plants do like having their roots jostled a bit, so don’t go out of your way to handle all plants like precious little baby birds.)

Did you notice that this list seemed to be made up of mostly large seeds? That’s not a hard rule, but it does come in handy sometimes. Also, most seeds on this list germinate and grow pretty quickly.

But not all seeds are so accommodating.

While some plants are easy to start from seed, some are so high maintenance and demanding that they leave you no option but to purchase them as plants.

For example, plenty of herbs (parsley) and edible flowers (violets) are sown in the late fall because they need to survive winter in order to grow strong and beautiful for springtime. If you don’t remember to scatter those seeds in the late fall, you’ll need to soak, freeze or nick certain seeds with a razor blade AND keep them moist for moths while you wait for them to germinate.

No big deal, you’ll buy them as transplants this time.

How, When and Why to Thin Your Plants:

When you do plant from seed, you’ll need to be ready to thin your plants, shortly after they’ve sprouted.

Thinning plants is a royal pain (personal opinion). I don’t actually mind weeding in the garden, but I hate thinning.

The basic idea to thinning is that too many seeds were sown too close together and they’ve all germinated and sprouted. If left alone, they will strangle each other mercilessly, living you with zero plants to produce your food.

So, carefully and painstakingly, you have to hover over them and remove all but the strongest sprout, with your fingers or even with tweezers (like my doctor dad does). Thinning should happen as soon as your fingers are able to remove excess sprouts without damaging others; in other words, as soon as possible.

The longer that you leave them to grow, the more chance you’ll have of damaging the roots of the plant you want to keep during the extraction process.

The most common plants that need to be thinned are kales, cabbages, mustards, broccolis and lettuces. These vegetables are all grown from teeny, tiny feather-lite seeds that are virtually impossible to scatter in any controlled way. So, I have two possible solutions for this:

Start them in cell trays:

When I worked on farms, we always started greens in cell trays because it’s easier to thin on a waist-high bench than by kneeling on the ground over rows of beds. When it’s time to water, the seeds don’t wash away or relocate themselves to a less perfect place. Transplanting kale and lettuce is awesome – you can make very cool designs (red, purple, & green – spiraled, even!) or just space them out properly to grow really big heads.

Use Pelleted Seeds:

Pelleted seeds may have saved my life. Not really, but they are definitely my favorite gardening invention of all time. Basically, someone took those little bitty seeds that are smaller than pinheads and coated them with a material that dissolves in water. Now, you’re planting little candies or BBs or bean-sized seeds. Seeds that your clumsy human fingers can actually manage. You can plant them in cell trays or directly in the ground and you will be saving seed, saving time, and hopefully, never, ever thinning.

Here’s a video showing three different ways to start seeds for transplanting. You can see me planting pelleted seeds in soil blocks at the 4:15 minute mark:

Here are two sources of pelleted seeds:

Johnny’s Seeds sells both organic and non-organic pelleted seeds

High Mowing Seeds sells only organic pelleted seeds

Varieties, Hybrids, & Heirlooms, A Seed Glossary:

Variety: the proper names given to specific types of veggies that have been bred and saved for their traits are known as the variety. For example, Butternut squash and Acorn Squash are two different varieties of winter squashes. While they’re both squashes, they have very different qualities, including size, shape, color, flavor, and post-harvest storage capacity. Choosing varieties that are exciting to you or a sensible choice for your garden is the really fun part about growing your own food.

Hybrids: are created when two different plant varieties are crossed. And just like when a donkey mates with a horse and a mule is born, hybrid seeds can’t actually reproduce the same results in the next generation. They’re only good for that one shot, a One-Hit Wonder of sorts. Gardeners will need to purchase more seeds to plant for the following season, which is a true boon for seed companies.

However, hybrids are definitely solving a problem. Many hybrids are much hardier, resisting temperature swings and pest exposure that their non-hybrid counterparts would fail to overcome.
Often times, hybrids (which have been around since the 1920s) often produce fantastic veggies. I’m a huge fan of hybrid Sungold cherry tomatoes; in my opinion, their flavor is unmatched.

Some people shun hybrids altogether over the simple fact that they have taken over and make up 90% of what the world plants, making our entire food system and economy reliant on seed companies. That’s an ethical reason that I can completely get behind, as well. So for now, Sungolds are the only hybrid that I plant.

Heirloom: this term basically refers to a list of seed varieties that have been saved by gardeners and farmers over time, due to their attractive traits. Taste, disease resistance, the ability to survive cold weather – all of these characteristics may have made certain seeds worth saving over and over throughout the course of generations. Often times, heirloom seeds have fascinating histories. One of my favorite tomato varieties is Dr. Wyche’s Yellow Tomato. Dr. Wyche owned a circus and grew his tomatoes atop an Oklahoma mountain, fertilizing them with elephant dung – they’re delicious.

I think of the term ‘heirloom’ in the same way that I do the word ‘antique’. According to my mother-in-law, an antique is always over 100 years old and everything else is a ‘collectible’. I’m unsure what the exact age cut-off is to be considered a true heirloom, but I’m personally not a stickler for using this type of language correctly, whether we’re talking plants or furniture. We can usually get each other’s meanings just fine. I think heirlooms and antiques are both ‘worth saving’. Another simple definition that I’ve seen for them is ‘passed down’.

Open-Pollinated: these seeds rely on wind, birds and insects to pollinate their flowers and encourage them to fruit – just like nature intended. Further, the seeds saved can be trusted to produce similar results again the next season. This is an entirely natural process and is celebrated by many of us who worry that as growing food becomes more modernized, seeds are being designed to skip out on this natural process.

Genetically Engineered Seeds/ Genetically Modified Seeds: these seeds are created by bypassing traditional plant breeding techniques and instead manipulating dna directly between cells. Sometimes the desired result is to make the plant impervious to pesticides and herbicides, so that they can be sprayed by a specific brand of poison without affecting the food crop. Other times, dna from other species are inserted into the seed to inspire unlikely traits, such as resistance to extreme temperatures.

Non-gmo Seeds: seeds that are NOT genetically modified. Unlike the foods that we currently buy here in the USA, seeds are much more extensively labeled. We can feel confident that our seeds do not contain gmos when we see this disclaimer – without having to purchase more expensive certified organic seeds as a safety precaution (which is currently the only way of truly avoiding gmos in our foods.)

Terminator Seeds/ Suicide Seeds: seeds that have been genetically altered to produce sterile seeds in the next generation. The idea behind this technology is that a grower cannot save seeds for replanting in future seasons, an otherwise common practice. Terminator seeds, for the first time, make farmers completely reliant upon the companies that sell them seeds. They must re-purchase seeds every season. This is considered to be one of the dirtiest tricks in Big Agribusiness; however, Monsanto (creator of Terminator technology) claims that they have never brought these seeds to market.

Understanding the Back of a Seed Packet:

Okay, let’s decode a seed packet, so that the next time you head to the store, you’ll know what you’re looking at. Not every seed company will list all of the possibilities that I’m laying out for you. That being said, if a piece of information that you’d like to see is missing from the packet you’re holding, try looking for the answer on a different company’s packaging. Things are usually exactly the same across the board, as long as you’re comparing the same variety.

I should probably mention that my business partner Liz and I have just launched into the world of selling seeds! We’re currently listing our first product on Amazon, a collection of 6 Heirloom Greens. It’s kind of exciting.

Days to Harvest/ Days to Maturity:

This number will tell you how long your plant will take to reach maturity and offer you tasty fruits , after it has been transplanted into the garden. I’ve also heard that when the seed packet recommends that the seed be directly sown instead of started indoors and transplanted, Days to Harvest then refers to that time frame – the date from planting to maturity. What is agreed upon in full, is that it is no more than a general guideline and definitely depends upon location and weather conditions. The important thing to note is that some plants take a really long time to mature – always check this date before buying. Melons for example are sometimes 115 Days – where I live, that’s tricky business and not going to happen if I try to plant them on June 30th.

Days to Emerge:

This tells you how long after you’ve sown the seed, you can expect to see it’s little green body pop up above ground. This is important for two reasons:

Watering seeds that have yet to emerge is a process that should be taken gingerly and demands your attention – you don’t want to let the soil dry out one single time. You also don’t want to water so forcefully that the seed may wash away, either. Say that the packet says 10-20 days. Think about your next three weeks – can you handle delivering this kind of TLC? If not, choose something that says 3-5 days!

If you choose to start any seeds in cell trays it’s always more convenient to group them together by Days to Emerge.

Mixing fast sprouters with painfully slow germinators makes it hard to give both exactly what they need within the same tray.

Seed Depth:

This tells you how far down to place the seed under the soil. A great rule of thumb to memorize (or type into your phone) is that every seed should be planted 3 times as deep as the thickness of the seed. So pumpkin & squash seeds go down pretty deep, but those blow-away lettuces? I just sprinkle them on top of the soil and I’ve never had an issue. When seeds are to be planted 1/8 inch deep, I just sprinkle; from ¼ inch to ½ deep – I lightly rake them in using a Bow rake. Anything bigger than that, I make a hole with my finger, plant the seed and fill with dirt.

Germination Rate:

Not all seed packets give you this number, but I believe that might change in 2016. The germination rate tells you the results of the seed company’s trials when testing this exact batch of seeds. Expressed as a percentage, they’re sharing how many of the seeds they planted sprouted into plants. This tells you two things:

X percent of the packet you are holding has viable seeds in it. Say that’s only 80 percent; is the same variety available from another company that got better results?

When you go home and plant, you might need to ‘overplant’ these seeds, just to account for the amount that aren’t going to show up. Better not risk it with just one or two, if the rate is on the low end (85% is the standard).

Seed Spacing:

In some ways, this is like the germination rate without spelling it all out for you. The company is saying that if you plant this number of seeds at the intended distance apart from one other, you’ll likely see enough of them sprout to leave you with a reasonable amount of options for choosing the strongest among them to allow a shot at maturity. Gardening can be cutthroat, huh?

Row Spacing:

This mostly comes into play when you’re creating actual rows in a bed that’s at least 3 feet wide. It’s not always easy to figure out how to respect that same math in an odd shape or in an elevated planter. Sometimes in a raised bed, I plant in a zig zag pattern so that technically, there is no row-mate for each plant, just a space leftover directly beside it for placing a smaller plant with shallower roots and less demands.


This number will tell you at what age to reduce the sprouts from the seeds you planted, into the right number of plants to pursue maturity. If you followed the seed spacing instructions, you’ll need to follow this step as well, or else your plants will grow too close together. This is the part I hate, because it’s not always easy to get to this chore at the right time and if you don’t get it right, then sometimes you’ve caused yourself bigger problems. That’s why I like to start little plants in cell trays and transplant out at the proper spacing (you can also find transplantable lettuce and kale for sale, instead of starting them yourself.)

When to Sow Outside:

This date will tell you exactly when to plant your seeds directly in the garden. Again, you may find that you’ve missed the boat, or that the seeds you’re looking at may need a few more weeks (or months even) before they can go in the ground. More importantly, this section will tell you if planting outdoors is not recommended at all – which is a vital piece of information.

When to Start Inside:

Same idea here – you’re looking to know if these seeds are intended to be started indoors way ahead of time, or if they can be directly sown in the garden. Important information – otherwise, you could be setting yourself up for failure. Yikes!

Plant Height:

This can tell you a lot about the future of your plant and your relationship to it. Short plants are often fairly sturdy, don’t shade their neighbors and don’t need too much from you. Tall plants may need structures, support, tying up throughout the season, and a plan for how they may affect their neighbors. When shopping for flower seeds, noting the plant height can help you to create an interesting, multi-leveled design in your garden.

A Few Words About Aesthetics:

Aesthetics refer to design that is naturally pleasing to the human eye.

Paying Attention to Plant Height & Color:

As I mentioned above, knowing the plant’s predicted height before sowing your seeds can be really helpful. Of course you’ll need this information for functional reasons (being careful about casting shadows) but you can also use plant height to create overall aesthetics in your garden.

When you’re thinking about your space, decide if you’d like to make it seem bigger than it is, or of you’d rather give it a tighter feel. A well known trick of the gardening trade is to place your tallest plants towards the back edge of your bed, making sure that they are made up of the darkest colors in your flower and foliage palette. Setting lighter, shorter plants in the foreground will create the illusion that your space is deeper and bigger than it is. You can reverse this method to bring some coziness to a large yard.

Planting & Direction:

Plants want to face the sun, pretty much as early in the day as they see it appear. I’m telling you this because the direction they choose to face, may not be the direction that you were hoping they would face.

One summer, I planted a beautiful row of tall sunflowers along our fence. I though they would look awesome right next to our house, facing the road. We lived right in the village then, next door to the busy post office and in a speed zone, so that everyone had to drive slowly by our house. My sunflowers had their backs to the entire neighborhood all season and I never saw it coming. Oops.

Good Seeds for Planting with Kids:

Getting the whole family involved is a great idea, and lots of kids love gardening (especially watering, I’ve noticed). There are a few seeds that are great for kids to work with, because they’re easy to hold, easy to plant, and interesting to look at. They are:

Sugar Snap Peas
Cranberry Beans, Solider Beans, Jacob’s Cattle Beans

Backyard Brainstorm: Help – Best Advice for Storing Seeds

In this weeks’ Backyard Brainstorm, listener Caroline is wondering about the best way to save her seeds so that she can plant them later. In her hot, desert climate, Caroline’s greens need to be planted in the cooler fall months instead of in the summertime. Help Caroline figure out how to store her seeds by typing your advice into the comments section below. You could win one of Liz’s Heirloom Seed Collections, available on Amazon.

Thanks for reading my blog. We wish you much success in Growing Better Greens!