How to Choose Vegetable Seeds (with Video)


How to Choose Vegetable SeedsThis post may contain affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site! 

'Tis the season of seed catalogs - when gardeners everywhere dream of their best, most abundant vegetable gardens yet. But before you send off any orders, stop to consider whether you're falling into some common seed selection traps.

Choose Seeds that Suit Your Garden

Often newbies purchase their seeds cheaply from stores like Walmart or Home Depot, never realizing they may be inferior and less likely to thrive. As Steve Solomon, former owner of the successful Territorial Seed Company, once wrote, many seed companies consider home gardeners gullible. "You can sell the gardener the sweepings off the seedroom floor," a salesman once told Solomon. When seeds "germinate badly or fail to yield uniformly and productively...[home gardeners] wonder if it was their watering, their soil preparation, the depth they sowed at, or any of a handful of factors they are uncertain about. Almost never does the home gardener blame the seed," Solomon writes in Gardening When it Counts.

Many other gardeners purchase their seeds from well known, national seed companies like Burpee's. That might be a better choice, but I'd like to suggest that for most of us, there's an even better place to purchase your veggie seeds: From a regional seed supplier. Such companies grow and sell seeds that are most likely to thrive in your climate. For example, when I lived in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, a perfect place to shop was Territorial Seed. All their seeds were (and are) tested in the Willamette Valley - and therefore were (and are) well suited to that area. If you live in that general region, you might also consider purchasing your seeds from a company located in England or parts of Canada, where weather conditions are similar to those in the valley.

How do you find regional seed sources? An internet search will usually do the trick.
Or, to find seed sources listed by state, check out Mother Earth News' Best Garden Companies. You can see how reliable a seed company is by reading the reviews over at Dave's Garden. Steve Solomon recommends the following:

For short season climates ("This area comprises the northern tier of the...United States and that part of southern Canada within a few hundred miles of the U.S. border."): Stoke Seeds, Johnny's Select Seeds, Veseys Seeds, William Dam Seeds

For moderate climates ("The middle American states...this is where the summer gets hot and steamy...and the winter is severe enough to actually freeze the soil solid at least 12 inches deep."): Stoke Seeds, Johnny's Select Seeds, Harris Seeds, King Seeds

For warm climates ("This includes the southern American states...The soil here never freezes solid; the summers are long and hot. The climate may be humid or arid."): Park Seed

For maritime climates ("...This bio region is sometimes called Cascadia. It includes the redwoods of northern California, extends into Oregon, Washington, and the Lower Mainland and islands of British Columbia, always west of the Cascade Mountains. England, Ireland, Wales...have about the same climate...These regions usually have relatively cool summers. Rarely does the soil freeze solid in winter except at higher elevations and where is it isolated from the ocean's moderating influence."): Territorial Seed, West Coast Seeds, New Gippsland Seeds

Even though you've now chosen suppliers that cater to your general region, you'll also want to check that each variety of seed you buy will grow in your USDA gardening zone. (Find your zone by clicking here.)  

Choose Seeds According to Their Maturity

How long it generally takes for seeds to go from germination to harvest is something every gardener should consider. Why? Real estate! If you choose veggies that take a long time to grow, you will, quite simply, get less food from your garden. For example, if I have a choice between a cabbage variety that takes 90 days to grow to maturity and one that matures in just 60 days, I'm going to plant the 60-day variety. That way, I can harvest the cabbage and then plant something else in the same location: maybe more cabbage, or maybe some other vegetable.
Choose Seeds According to the Season

Seed catalogs should state whether the seeds are most suitable for early season, mid-season, or late season gardening. Some vegetables will only grow well in the cool of early spring or fall. Others require the heat of summer. There's little point in growing spinach, for example, during a hot Southern summer. It will taste awful and go to seed quickly.

Choose Seeds According to Growing Requirements
Most vegetables need "full sun" - at least 6 hours of full sunlight daily, but there are a few that can tolerate more shade. Also, some plants have special growing requirements like acidic soil or soil heavily enriched with nutrients. Make sure the seeds you buy correspond with the growing conditions you have.

Choose Seeds According to Lingo

Some terms found in seed catalogs can be confusing. Understanding them will help you choose the best seeds for your garden.

Open pollinated:  If you want to save seeds, you must choose open pollinated varieties. Seeds from open pollinated plants are "true" to the parent plant - meaning the baby plants will be the same variety as the parent plant.

Heirloom: All heirloom seeds are open pollinated, but not all open pollinated seeds are given the label heirloom. This is because "heirloom" is a loose term meaning a variety that has been around for several generations. Most date to the 1930s or 40s.

Hybrids: These are seeds created by crossing two varieties of plants. They can be purposefully made by humans or naturally created by the wind, birds, or insects. Hybrid seeds are not the same thing as GMO seeds. Hybrids are not ideal for seed saving; some hybrid seeds are sterile, but most simply are not true to the parent plant. On the other hand, hybrids can be more disease and pest resistant than non-hybrid varieties.

GMO: Patented seeds created by removing or adding DNA genes to the plant. GMOs can only be made in a laboratory and some contain non-plant material. GMO seeds are only sold to commercial farmers buying seed in bulk. Home gardeners cannot purchase GMO seeds. (See "Why You Shouldn't Worry About GMO Seeds in Your Garden.") EDIT 2/14/24: I'm sorry to say that there is now one tomato being sold to home gardeners that is GMO. It is called The Purple Tomato and was developed by (and is currently only sold by) Norfolk Healthy Produce. Although this tomato might seem tame compared to some GMO crops, it still unnaturally combines Snapdragon flower DNA with tomato DNA. In nature, this could never happen. The big concern here is that if The Purple Tomato pollen mixes with a traditional tomato's pollen (which can happen via the wind, insects, or other pollinators), it could cross-pollinate and create a whole new plant that would no longer give "pure" seed.
Organic seeds: These seeds are grown organically and are not sprayed with non-organic chemicals. Unless seeds are specifically marked organic, gardeners should assume they are grown by non-organic means and are sprayed with non-organic disinfectants.

A version of this post first appeared in January of 2012.


  1. I've never had a vegetable garden--and admire those that do! And love to cook--thanks tons for this--this is wonderful info!!! It makes it not quite so intimidating!!!

  2. NC Mom, if you love to cook, you oughtta try growing a few things. There is NOTHING like fresh from the garden produce!

  3. For the record, my brother-in-law, who is a professional grower for a nursery outside of Salem, OR, highly recommended Park Seeds to me years ago. Thanks for the reminder. I'd forgotten about them. Now, I have a catalog request in (as I receive my 2nd Burpee catalog in the mail in as many weeks!)

  4. Great, Liberty. They also have an online catalog, if you're anxious to start winter sowing :)

  5. I planted my first vegetable garden last year and it wasn't all that successful so I found your article very helpful. And yes, I did purchase my seeds from a local chain store (blushing). Thank you for some much needed insight!

  6. Vegetable seeds, I encourage you to read the Gardening 101 posts on this blog. Seed is definitely an important factor, but so is sun, soil, and water. If you have any questions, let me know!

  7. I find it easier to figure out what I want by looking at a catalog... Archaic of me, I know, especially since I love technology, but I honestly prefer a hard catalog to look through. :) Go figure.

  8. U understand, Liberty. I'm the same way...although I'm not sure why.

  9. Aside from these tips, the seeds that you’re going to buy should be based on what your family eats. This is very helpful for beginners because many of them find it hard to choose what crop to grow. And if you’re just starting, I suggest to start small and to keep your enthusiasm high. :D