It’s no secret where to get seeds for famous-name tomatoes such as Sun Gold or any of the other catalog standbys you have come to count on. But don’t stop there.
An entire world of genetic diversity and cultural history is available to those who look a little further, courtesy of an emerging group of seed sellers who combine a passion for the unusual with a mission behind each offering.
The mission behind a particular seed variety may be environmental: perennial versions of favorite edibles such as kale, for instance, that lead to less tilling and therefore less carbon released into the atmosphere, which is especially important on a farming scale. Or it may be to preserve and disseminate traditional seeds from places such as Afghanistan, Sudan and the Maldives, where the genetics of ancestral plants are imperiled by strife or climate havoc.
Browse these companies’ virtual catalogs and take what Nathan Kleinman, a founder of the nonprofit Experimental Farm Network, calls “a slow walk into garden radicalism.”
Come for the irresistibly unusual: the Guatemalan Green-Fleshed Ayote winter squash (not your standard orange), the Chinese Pink celery, with its startlingly vivid stalks, or the Sacre Bleu kidney beans (yes, blue). But stay — as Kleinman and the founders of other like-minded companies hope you will — for the future-focused optimism: not just the seeds’ personalities and the bounty they promise, but the deeper possibilities they represent.
To get adventurous gardeners started, Kleinman put together a short list of some of his colleagues in the small-scale organic seed movement. And yes, he regards them as colleagues, not competitors.
“Ours is a really collaborative industry,” he said. “We trade seeds with one another and share notes, all working together to preserve biodiversity. The competition is giant agribusiness and the industrial food system.”
The back story
Kleinman and his colleagues share the core belief that agriculture can and should be used to help build a better world, not contribute to environmental decline. These companies’ websites offer messages of environmental activism and social justice — and yes, a whole lot of irresistible plants.
Kleinman and Dusty Hinz, the co-founder of Experimental Farm Network, met in Philadelphia through the Occupy Wall Street movement. Then they worked with Occupy Vacant Lots, transforming empty plots into productive food-growing spaces.
In 2014, using borrowed land near Elmer, New Jersey, they started what has become a nonprofit cooperative of growers focused on facilitating collaboration on sustainable-agriculture research and plant breeding.
Hinz has since moved back to his native Minnesota, where the seed-company part of the operation takes place today. Rather than relying on grants or donations, the company uses seed sales to support research, breeding and rematriation efforts — the return of varieties to their ancestral people. Heirloom tomatoes and watermelons from the city of Homs, in Syria, for example, have been distributed to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
The company’s catalog helps support food-justice efforts, too. At the start of the pandemic, Experimental Farm Network founded the Cooperative Gardens Commission, providing free seeds to empower people to grow food. More than two dozen companies donated seeds that were distributed last year to more than 300 local and regional hubs.
This month, the beginning of the company’s fifth year of selling seeds, it posted its biggest list of seed offerings so far — nearly 500. And last year, it received 4,500 orders, as sales volume more than doubled over the previous year.
A different vocabulary
Familiar seed-catalog notations such as F1 hybrid — the predictable first generation of a controlled cross — aren’t part of the vocabulary in catalogs of companies such as Experimental Farm Network. The unfamiliar terms might, at first, sound puzzling.
These are open-pollinated seeds, or non-hybrids. You may even see mention of dehybridization, the process of allowing a hybrid to set seed, and then selecting among its offspring, or F2s. It’s unpredictable, yes, but that’s where the fun is, Kleinman said.
You’ll find landraces, or seeds that are not standardized but represent a diverse population with similar characteristics — often drawn from localized populations developed through traditional farming, after farmers have selected for desired traits over generations.
The Kandahar Pendi Landrace okra from Afghanistan sold by Experimental Farm Network yields green, red, pink or white pods, wide-ranging in shape and size. The company’s Nanticoke winter squash is a traditional crop of the Nanticoke people, one of the southernmost groups in the Algonquin language family, historically from parts of Maryland and Delaware. The fruits vary in form, shape, color, size — even flesh texture, flavor and storage capability.
You’ll see the word grex (Latin for flock), a term borrowed from orchid breeding, to denote a highly diverse group of interbreeding varieties. Kleinman learned it from Alan Kapuler, a longtime open-source seed breeder and mentor to many in the organic seed movement, who founded Peace Seeds. Today, his daughter, Dylana Kapuler, and her partner, Mario DiBenedetto, carry on the work at Peace Seedlings, where peas with yellow or purple pods and marigolds that grow to 6 feet or higher are among the diverse headliners.
Experimental Farm Network lists a turnip grex and golden beet grex, originally from Alan Kapuler, and another called Homesteader’s Kaleidoscopic Perennial Kale, bred by Chris Homanics. These are bushy plants that display a range of leaf colors, some with dramatic variegation.
“What tends to blow people’s minds about the grexes and populations that don’t grow true to the previous generation is that every seed has the potential to be something completely new that’s never been seen before,” Kleinman said. “Most seed companies would never sell them, but we like to offer people that mystery and the excitement of not knowing what’s coming.”
A diversity of seeds
Kleinman’s love of seeds began as a child. Later, he would develop an interest in world events and study foreign policy at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.
When he discovered that he could request seed from the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, a series of seed banks under the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his two passions merged. He started searching the database for places in the news — places where USDA scientists may have once collected seed.
“I started typing in names like Kandahar,” he said, referring to the city in southern Afghanistan. “There were all sorts of seeds collected in these places that aren’t even safe to set foot in anymore. I found seams in the collection rich with cultural artifacts from places that, in the decades since the seed was collected, have seen so much strife.”
Like South Sudan, the homeland of a dear friend, and of several of his company’s sorghum offerings. Or the Maldives, “already affected by sea-level rise, a place that may not exist in 50 or 100 years,” Kleinman said.
It wasn’t enough for government seed banks to store this seed, he believed. “It’s critical to get these seeds into people’s hands, particularly into the hands of people whose cultures originated them,” he said. “They’re not doing any good in the freezer.”
Truelove Seeds, in Philadelphia, also focuses on culturally important varieties, many of them ancestral seeds of growers in the company’s network. These growers understand which traits to select for, so they know best how to preserve any given variety — like the Northern-adapted strain of pigeon peas, or gandules, for example, which East New York Farms in Brooklyn brought to the Truelove mix.
At West Virginia-based Two Seeds in a Pod, the traditional crops of Turkey are the focus. An astonishing range of peppers beckons, alongside Anatolian watermelons with seeds that look as if an artist had carved decorative markings into them.
A new source offering its first list of seeds this month is Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, a Black- and Indigenous-led company with a focus on African and African American crops such as Ethiopian kale, Alabama Red okra and four types of collards.
Climate change came into sharp focus for Kleinman when he did hurricane-relief work with Occupy Sandy. When Experimental Farm Network was formed, the idea of developing carbon-sequestering perennial staple crops — grains, oilseeds, vegetables — remained front of mind.
“It’s not just the tractors and the equipment and the chemicals,” he said, “but just the very act of tilling.”
In his catalog, there are many perennial edibles on offer, including unexpected native ones such as beach plum (Prunus maritima) and passionflower, or maypop vine (Passiflora incarnata). What’s not to love about a perennial vining spinach substitute called Caucasian Mountain Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides)? Work continues on Andy’s Green Mountain Multiplier Onion, a perennial variety from seed, and there is seed for rhubarb, too.
One promising research project is a perennial sorghum, a grain that is an important global food crop but is almost always grown as an annual. The work began with seed shared by colleagues at Adaptive Seeds in Oregon, a catalog rich with open-pollinated food and flowers. “They gave us two sorghum heads full of seed,” Kleinman said, “and now they, in turn, carry a South Sudanese variety from us.”
Each order taken at one of these places means more genetics have more chances to grow and express themselves — to adapt and evolve.
“Seeds carry almost infinite potential,” Kleinman posted recently on the @experimentalfarmnetwork Instagram. “They brought us to this day, and they’ll carry us to the next.”