One of most important parts of planning a successful garden is to choose the right plants — which means starting local. Go to local plant nurseries, especially the small and funky ones, to see what their staffers like. Go to local farmer’s markets and find out which varieties grow best near you, and maybe you’ll even discover secret local gems unknown in the wider garden trade. Ask about local or regional seed companies and mail-order nurseries. Order as many catalogs (they’re usually free) as you can.
For people reading this in the Willamette Valley, check out this list of some of my favorite local resources.
For people reading this outside of western Oregon, or anyone who’s hungry to get a sense of the incredible diversity you can bring into your own garden, here are some general suggestions, with links to more specifics below.
But most importantly, enjoy!
WHERE TO FIND HEIRLOOM AND UNUSUAL PLANT VARIETIES:
At the epicenter of the movement to preserving our edible heritage is the Seed Savers Exchange (3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101, 563-382-5990) The membership organization publishes the definitive listings of where specific varieties are available (including catalogs and nurseries), tracks the growth and loss of varieties, and now includes a catalog with many unusual offerings.
Looking for something specific, or wondering what experience others have had with a small company? The Garden Watchdog website lets you search for specific product types (i.e., organic seeds), see customer reviews, and link to company websites. You can even search by zip code for companies near you. Find specific plants online at www.plantsources.com.
Around the United State, the Department of Agriculture runs several National Germplasm Repositories, from which home gardeners as well as commercial operations can get seeds or cutting at little or no cost.
Seed of Diversity Canada, P.O. Box 36, Station Q, Toronto, Ontario M4T 2L7, Canada. 905-623-0353. Not a seed company, but a nonprofit group of gardeners throughout Canada that save seed from rare and unusual garden plants in order to preserve the varieties. Members of the “living gene bank” grow 675 varieties of tomatoes, 275 varieties of beans, 37 varieties of eggplant, squash, and peas, and about 300 more vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs.
Farmers markets are a great way to get acquainted with varieties you don’t find in stores. Find the markets nearest you here or here. If you find something you like enough to grow, ask the farmer for the seed names.
Check with your local cooperative extension for listings. For instance, the extension office at North Carolina State University offers a list of nurseries and seed companies for local growers.
Or spend some time with catalogs or books (see some I like here). Catalogs are an especially good deal. Most are free or very inexpensive, and offer a terrific education in themselves about the history and growth needs of specific kinds of plants.