Where to Buy Heirloom Seeds
As I type this, we are in the midst of a good old-fashioned Wyoming ground blizzard, complete with road closures, snow sand-blasting your face when you step out the door, and drifts higher than my knees.
We knew it was coming when it dumped nearly 12-inches of snow yesterday. That’s the pattern ’round these parts: fluffy, dry snow followed by 50 to 60mph winds the following day. It happens just like clockwork.
The barn and coop are a snowy disaster, and it takes mountaineering skills to climb the drifts in the barnyard. And so, I’m hunkering down inside with a cup of herbal tea, a roast in the crockpot, and a pile of seed packets waiting for it to pass.
That’s right my friends, it’s seed ordering time.
I’ve been using nothing but heirloom seeds for the last 7+ years and have had really good results with them. (Well, minus the years I’ve killed my garden, but that wasn’t the fault of the seeds.)
Inevitably, when I mention seeds on social media, I’m peppered with a dozen questions or so about my favorite seeds and where I buy them. Thus, I figured it was high-time to write it all out in an official blog post.
What are Heirloom Seeds
Like most things, there’s a considerable amount of debating surrounding the exact definition of an heirloom seed, but most folks can agree on the following characteristics:
Heirloom seeds are:
- Open-pollinated. This means the plants have only been exposed to natural pollination methods like insects, birds, or wind, and have not been purposely crossed with other varieties. This also means when you plant a seed saved from an heirloom plant, it will produce true to its type. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but NOT all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. (Some plants are self-pollinated, but they can fall into this same category.)
- Passed down from generation to generation. Most folks agree that in order to be considered an heirloom, a plant must have been around for at least 50 years, although many varieties have been around for much longer. This means they may have been lovingly cultivated and preserved by someone’s great-great-grandma, or grown as a market-variety hundreds of years ago.
- Not hybrids. Hybrids are plants that have been artificially crossed for better production, color, portability, etc. For example, let’s say you have a variety of tomato that grows big, beautiful fruit, but doesn’t produce a large yield. But you also have another variety of tomato that has fantastic yields, but smaller fruit. By crossing these two plants, you feasibly could create a hybrid that would give you the best of both worlds. However, it would be pointless to save seeds from your new hybrid plant, as any seeds you held back would not produce true to the type of either parent. And so if you are growing hybrids, you’ll have to repurchase seed each year.
- Not genetically modified. I see a lot of folks confusing hybrids with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and they are NOT the same thing. A GMO is something that has been altered with molecular genetic techniques. You can’t do this at home and it’s unlikely you’ll run across many GMO seeds in your home-gardening seed catalogs. It costs a lot of money to genetically modify something, so most companies focus on the process for large-scale industrial crops. GMOs are highly controversial, and I prefer to steer clear of them whenever I can.
Why I Prefer Heirloom Seeds
Oh man… Where do I even start?
- The taste! Heirloom veggies haven’t been subjected to selective breeding that favors uniformity and their ability to be shipped cross-country over taste. Heirloom tomatoes taste like, well, tomatoes; not the bland mush you’re used to getting at the store. Last summer I grew an heirloom spinach crop in our raised beds. Normally I’m just “meh” when it comes to spinach; it’s fine, but nothing I really crave. However, I couldn’t get enough of my heirloom spinach crop! It had a flavor like I’ve never experienced from store-bought spinach, and I found myself going out to the garden several times per day to grab handfuls. The taste difference alone is worth sourcing and growing heirloom seeds.
- Adaptability. If you plan on saving the seeds from your heirloom plants, some varieties will adapt to their location and grow a little bit better each year. Pretty cool, eh?
- Seed Saving. As I mentioned above, saving hybrid seeds doesn’t work since the seeds won’t produce true to type. However, you don’t have to worry about that with heirlooms. If you are careful with your seed saving, you could stop buying seeds indefinitely! (Until you start looking at catalogs and you get the itch to try something new… But I digress.)
- Nutrition.There are some interesting studies that have shown a decrease in the nutrient-density of our food supply over the decades. High yields have taken priority with nutrient-content being pushed to the back-burner. While not all heirlooms are automatically higher in nutrients, there’s a very good chance that your heritage veggies will contain more vitamins and minerals than run-of-the-mill, mass-scale-variety grocery store produce.
- Preserving rare varieties. When you purchase heirloom seeds, you’re supporting all the folks over the decades who have taken so much time and care in saving these seeds, and you’re encouraging genetic diversity for future generations.
- The stories. One of the very best parts of heirloom seeds are their stories. There are ancient melons from Iraq, hardy corn developed in the mountains of Montana, globe-like carrots from France, and fluted Italian tomatoes from the early 19th century. It’s really, really hard for me to opt for ho-hum seeds when I have tantalizing options like these available.
Tips for Growing Heirlooms
Heirloom vegetables really aren’t that different to grow than regular seeds. However, here are a few tips to ensure your success.
Tip #1: Go online or order through a catalog. Unless you have spectacular garden stores in your area, you’ll find a much better (and more exciting) variety online or in catalogs. The scant heirloom offerings at my small, local garden stores are disappointing at best.
Tip #2: NOW (aka January or February) is the time to be stocking up on seeds– the best varieties sell out fast and it’s likely they won’t be available if you wait until April or May.
Tip #3: Read the description to find the growing time and any special notes about climate or location. This is the first thing I look for when I’m seed shopping, and it can really make a difference in our short Wyoming growing season.
Tip #4: Experiment with new colors and types of vegetables– get out of the rut of only red tomatoes and only green beans and go crazy!
Where to Buy Heirloom Seeds
I won’t make you wait any longer! Here are five heirloom seed companies that come highly recommended from homesteaders all over. These all sell non-GMO, open-pollinated varieties, although not all of their seeds are Certified Organic. Government organic certification isn’t all that important to me, providing the companies are committed to sustainable growing/sourcing practices.
- True Leaf Market
I started ordering most of my seeds from True Leaf Market in recent years and I absolutely LOVE them. They have high germination rates and a great selection of seeds (as well as fermenting gear, sprout kits, and other awesome stuff). I have done a podcast interview with the owner and I was even more impressed with their company after that interview. Click here to shop True Leaf Market.
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
This is where I’ve ordered almost all of my seeds in the past and I couldn’t be happier. They have a huge variety, a gorgeous catalog, and they include a free pack of seeds with every order. Click here to shop Baker Creek.
- Seed Savers Exchange
A non-profit community of folks who are dedicated to preserving seeds for the generations to come. Lots of diversity to choose from! Click here to shop Seed Savers Exchange.
- Territorial Seeds.
They carry non-heirloom seeds as well, but have a considerable heirloom section of their website. Click here to shop Territorial Seeds.
- Johnny’s Seeds.
Johnny’s carries many varieties, including a considerable heirloom/open-pollinated section. They also have a selection of certified organic seed if that is a priority for you. Click here to shop Johnny’s Seeds
- Annie’s Heirloom Seeds
A smaller company specializing in heirlooms and certified organic seeds sourced around the world. Click here to shop Annie’s Heirloom Seeds
From Holly: “This year I am excited to support High Mowing Organic Seeds with my seed purchase. As implied in their name, they’re raising the bar in having all their seeds be organic! Last year I had good success with cover crop from them. They have an excellent catalogue of veggies to choose from. Check them out! “https://www.highmowingseeds.com”
From Lorna: “Seed Treasures is a great place to order. Jackie Clay-Atkinson and Will Atkinson have just recently begun to sell their seeds, so it’s a very small operation right now. All seeds are open-pollinated and heirloom and have been tried, tested and tasted. You can read detailed descriptions about each seed selection written by two of the most dedicated homesteaders in the business, Jackie & Will. Reasonably priced, too! http://seedtreasures.com/”
From Danielle: “I love Mary’s heirloom seeds and seeds for generations. They’re both great, small Mom and pop type shops that are dedicated to preserving our agricultural heritage and heirloom seeds. Their customer service is amazing. The varieties may not be as plentiful as a place like baker’s, but they do have quite a variety considering their size! https://www.marysheirloomseeds.com and https://seedsforgenerations.com
From Rose: “I discovered True Leaf Market a few years ago and have been extremely impressed. Their seed germination rate is amazing, and their variety is phenomenal. I now go to them for my sprouting seeds and cover crops too.” https://trueleafmarket.com
What’s your favorite place to buy heirloom seeds?
Leave a comment with a link and 1 or 2 sentences why you like them and I’ll add it to this post!
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Grow landrace cannabis strains with ‘fair trade’ seeds from the source
With so much attention paid to America’s push toward legalization, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that cannabis cultivation—and cannabis culture—date back thousands of years.
Throughout India and Southeast Asia, indigenous farmers continue to grow cannabis and make hashish using methods passed down for untold generations. Despite a boom in demand and a global push to end prohibition, these traditional cannabis production communities continue to struggle economically, as changes in climate and encroaching tourism and development threaten their existence.
And now they find their unique landrace cannabis genetics under threat. Many of these storied lineages date back farther than the oldest wine grape varietals. These landrace cannabis strains may also hold the genetic building blocks for breeding the next generation of game-changing hybrid strains.
Ancient Himalayan strains, grown at the source
This cannabis landrace strain is grown by indigenous farmers in Himalayan valley villages within the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. The region was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. (Photo courtesy of Indian Landrace Exchange)
Find, support, and defend landrace strains
Attempts to locate, preserve, and proliferate these strains date back decades. But most such efforts have been led by geographic and cultural outsiders, often driven more by profits than preservation.
Over the past five years a grassroots, locally-led, globally crowdsourced effort has emerged to help defend and support these local cannabis-growing communities. The Indian Landrace Exchange describes itself as a “collective of Indigenous frontline farmers, seed collectors, and preservationists” with the goal of supporting these communities economically while helping spread and preserve their landrace strains.
Grown locally, harvested by hand
Landrace seeds are harvested by hand in the local villages where the plants grow. (Photo courtesy Indian Landrace Exchange)
Indian Landrace Exchange steps in
To learn more, Leafly spoke with Deepak Chaudhary (@irrazinig), the cannabis landrace conservationist who helped found the Indian Landrace Exchange and continues to coordinate the group’s efforts.
Leafly: When did you first become interested in cannabis?
Deepak Chaudhary: When I first started consuming cannabis, I was smoking hashish that was not always good. So I had fun, but it didn’t entice me to really dig deeper into this plant. It wasn’t until I entered college that I had a little more exposure because I met people from different regions with different cultures and experiences.
I started smoking with people from Himachal Pradesh, which is a Highland region. And I was like, “Okay, I want to go wherever this resin [hashish] comes from.” That was the inspiration that eventually led to the Indian Landrace Exchange.
Genetics and flower unique to the region
This is an example of the incredibly colorful strains offered by the Indian Landrace Exchange. (Photo and text via indianlandraceexchange.com/genetic-library/)
Leafly: Where did you go first?
Chaudhary: In 2016, I went to Malana, which is the Mecca of cannabis in India. It’s almost like a religious pilgrimage. There, for the first time, I saw indigenous people using very traditional techniques to maintain their crops and domesticate them. From planting to harvesting to making concentrates and getting them to customers, the whole process was just so raw.
As I learned more about these communities, I began to think we should be documenting and preserving this way of life because these remote regions are changing rapidly. Every year you see more tourism, more houses, more shops, and less cannabis.
“When I visited the village, the plants were fully flowered. The smell was thick in the air everywhere.”
– Deepak Chaudhary, Indian Landrace Exchange founder
The first time I visited, it was October. The plants were fully flowered. When I reached the village, the smell was thick in the air everywhere. There was no escape from it, and that’s so beautiful. It’s something that leaves a very deep imprint on you. At harvest time, you also see a lot of people sitting on their porches rubbing down the plants to make hashish, which is basically the crudest form of extraction. But while hand rubbing may sound very simple, there are actually a lot of details. There’s a real art to it.
Technically in India cannabis is not permitted, but in Malana there’s not much law imposed. The nearest police station is 12 miles away, and to drive that road takes three hours. Those police are also from the same area, so basically they understand that these people are not committing any violent crime or anything like that. They’re farmers who just happen to have a different choice of crop and are mostly left alone. So the environment of the village is super peaceful.
Being there made me want to visit all of these kinds of places, meet the people, try to understand their culture, and then educate others about it. That includes the challenges they face, and how the landrace varieties of cannabis they grow are endangered.
I went next to Kashmir, and eventually to Southeast Asia and Pakistan. Now we have a network of friends and communities of farmers in all of these places. That’s how the Indian Landrace Exchange developed in an organic way into a grassroots effort of close to a hundred people that has taken on a life of its own.
How sticky is that ancient local bud?
Members of the Indian Landrace Exchange show off their “hash hands,” with the sticky resin from handling landrace strain cannabis plants in the field. (Photo courtesy of Indian Landrace Exchange)
Leafly: What does the Indian Landrace Exchange do to help these farmers?
Chaudhary: We became a bridge between the indigenous world and the world of legal cannabis.
For people in this newly legal industry, there’s a whole galaxy of possibilities in terms of finances. But that’s not true for people in traditional cannabis habitats—even though they’re doing most of the work.
When these indigenous farmers want to sell their resin, they can’t go make deals on their own. They have to relinquish it all to organized, underground groups that control the distribution to major markets, where they can get a good price for it. Some part of that wholesale price flows back to the growers, but not enough.
No matter what indigenous community you visit, they’re all struggling—despite how much they’re growing. But if we can help preserve their landrace genetics, while also helping them sell seeds to people all over the world, that changes the dynamic.
Tall, stalky cannabis in Kashmir
Cannabis growing beside the Jhelum River in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan. (Photo courtesy of Indian Landrace Exchange)
Leafly: And these seeds are the “landraces,” right? What does that term mean when it comes to cannabis?
Chaudhary: A cannabis varietal which has adapted to one specific locale over time could be classified as a landrace cannabis variety, although there are many different ways to further sub-categorize it depending on how it has been developed. By mapping the genome of plants grown in indigenous communities, we have been able to prove these are unique native varietals dating back thousands of years.
“Our first priority is preservation. Then we make sure a fair share of the revenue generated by selling these seeds goes to the farmers.”
– Deepak Chaudhary, Indian Landrace Exchange
Our first priority has always been preservation. Then we make sure a fair share of the revenue generated by selling these seeds goes back to those farmers. Some people will go to these indigenous people and pay them $1,000 for a million seeds. That’s a lot of money in those communities—but they’re also doing the same colonialist thing that’s been happening forever.
What we do is create small collectives amongst the indigenous farmers. I tell them, “Every year we’ll come back and take some samples from each of your fields.” And then I show them all my costs and incomes and explain that their unique landrace genetics are even more valuable than the resin they produce.
That’s sometimes very hard for them to fathom, until I start paying them more money than they’ve been making off the resin. And what that does is not only help financially liberate people, it also assures them that—should anything happen to their crops—they must still save these seeds. Because as long as you have the seeds, you have everything.
Final product: Old-school hashish
Traditionally dry-sifted trichomes and baked hashish from South Kashmir. (Photo courtesy Indian Landrace Exchange)
Leafly: What’s a good example of how this changes the dynamic for farmers?
Chaudhary: In the town of Mastung, in Pakistan’s province of Balochistan, we worked with a grower who had a water crisis in a dry place where you have to dig a thousand feet down to reach ground water. That costs a lot of money. So we arranged a couple of seed sales—while preserving and documenting his genetics—and that earned him enough revenue to pay for digging a well. It’s not something that’s going to transform someone’s entire life, but it’s significant. We try to do things like that wherever we go.
Packaged cannabis seeds like these can be found at local markets in remote regions of India and Pakistan. (Courtesy of Indian Landrace Exchange)
Leafly: How are seeds made available to growers in Europe and North America?
Chaudhary: All of the information we have about the genetics we collect and preserve is available free on our website. From there, I basically work with a few selected seed banks, which you can find on my Instagram page.
Whether you’re an American grower or a European grower, my first suggestion would be to visit my Instagram feed and educate yourself about different genetics from different regions. We also document all of the tours we take so you can match each of these landraces to the community where it grows. It’s important to find one that will grow well in the climate where you live, so we make that information available as well.