As a child in New York, I thought watermelons were an absolute waste of valuable garden space. I was a whimsical child, but still practical. Our watermelons’ long, trailing vines yielded only a single fruit — and sometimes none — after an entire growing season, so my anticipation was almost always unrequited. Every few years, we’d give them another try, only to reach the same conclusion by September: We should have sown more tomatoes, more lettuce, and more beets.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Like our reticent red peppers, eggplants lacking abundance, late-blooming dahlias, and unenthusiastic peanuts, the watermelon seeds we planted were adapted to a different region. We simply needed different seeds — seeds adapted to our region and its climatic quirks — to have different experiences.
Local Seed is the Heart of Local Food
The oaks growing on my farm in the Northeast are very different from the oaks growing in California. They have to be to deal with the shorter, wetter summers and the much longer, colder winters here. If regionally adapted oak seed makes a difference, why not regionally adapted lettuce? Tomatoes? In fact, life on Earth depends on everything becoming better adapted to its environment.
Just as local food tastes better than commercially produced food, gardening is easier and harvests are more abundant when the seeds you sow are adapted to thrive in your region. There may be no seed more regionally adapted than that you save yourself, but if you’re not inclined to save your own seed, there are plenty of extraordinary stewards who will be happy to share their passion, understanding, and seeds with you.
Before we get into local seed producers, let’s put on a wider lens.
A Brief History of Seed
Every seed contains an entire life history millions of years in the making. A few seeds, of the millions in a single generation, might travel the globe. Most will stay within their original watershed and, most likely, their original microclimate. In this way, seeds and the plants they produce become profoundly adapted to a place.
Agricultural seed tells an additional story — one of human relationship. For the last 10,000 years, these seeds have slowly adapted to new places, spreading first on our backs, then by camel, then by boat. Fast forward to today: Most seed companies offer seed from growers all over the world. How did this happen?
From Commons to Commodity
If we define “regional seed” as “seed adapted to a bioregion,” then most seed before World War I was regional. Farmers in both industrialized and developing nations saved their own seed. Excellent, well-adapted seed stock was as integral to their livelihoods as the prize bulls farmers kept to service their herds. Each generation would select for traits that met the shifting conditions on each farm, in each region. Farmers generally regarded seeds as a common resource to be honored and shared, like clean water and fresh air, not as a proprietary item to be owned or restricted.
After World War I, F1 hybrid corn was introduced to the market. Though wary farmers met the strain with resistance, it came to dominate the market within 40 years, helped along by government subsidies during World War II. Within a single generation, farm-grown seed was replaced by seed produced in other bioregions that couldn’t be saved, because hybrid seed wouldn’t grow true-to-type in future generations. Seed became just another commodity to purchase annually, like commercial fertilizers and pesticides.
Most of the seeds that grow the food in our grocery stores are owned and patented, their genes tightly controlled and restricted. These seeds are grown as an industrial, one-size-fits-all commodity, rather than as commons, reflecting the unique values and needs of each region.
Sown Locally, Grown Globally
Most of us share a blind faith that our seed is produced by the companies selling them. Most often, however, this isn’t the case.
Today, most seed is grown where the climate favors commercial, industrial dry seed production, such as the Central Valley of California. Unless you grow in the Central Valley, the seeds you sow are not likely to be well-adapted to your climate.
Much of this commercial seed is also adapted to modern agricultural techniques, such as mechanized cultivation and harvest, heavy herbicide and pesticide use, and heavy chemical fertilization. Indeed, industrial food systems serve industry — business as usual — far better than they serve regional, small-scale, and organic markets.
Where to Find Regionally Adapted Seeds
Here’s the bad news: Regionally adapted seed is hard to come by. You likely have a seed company within 500, perhaps even 100 miles of you — but most seed companies are distributors, not growers. Much of the commercially available seed on the planet is adapted to the long-season, dry climates where seed is grown, rather than to where a gardener might sow it.
The good news is this: Companies have never been more accessible to consumers with questions, so call the companies you’re interested in purchasing from and ask them where their seeds are grown and what they’re selected for. Most companies will be delighted to answer such questions, and there are more and more regional seed growers every year, so your chances of finding a company producing seed adapted to your region just keep improving. Take a look at our Regional Seed Company Map for some companies to start with.
Fruition Seeds: Naples, New York
Fruition’s organic seeds reflect what we love about life, as well as what we need to thrive in short seasons: Some of our favorites include cold-hardy kale, spinach, and cilantro that can overwinter uncovered; delicious disease-resistant tomatoes that ripen early; and flowers that feed our bodies, souls, and native pollinators. We celebrate regional heirlooms, such as rich, creamy ‘Sibley’ winter squash, introduced in Rochester in 1888. We also develop new cultivars that our grandchildren will know as beloved heirlooms, such as ‘August Ambrosia’ watermelon, which we harvest starting in late July and all through August. Many of our cultivars are developed nearby, at Cornell University, such as the ‘Silver Slicer’ cucumber, which we love for its incredible flavor, and its resistance to powdery mildew.
We also love sharing everything we’ve learned through our decades of organic gardening in Zone 5. Fruition’s blog, social media, and YouTube channels are invaluable resources for home gardeners, and Flourish Garden Club is our in-depth garden community, with hundreds of members and immense resources for beginning and experienced gardeners alike.
Common Wealth Seeds: Louisa, Virginia
“If we want seeds that work well for Southeast growers, we have to do this work in the Southeast,” muses Edmund Frost, founder of Common Wealth Seeds. Frost’s variety trials are impressive. He also produces quality seed, preserving regional heirlooms as well as developing new cultivars adapted to the Southeast. “These seeds are essential,” says Frost, “and so is the work of creating a strong community to empower and enrich us all.”
Frost has just released ‘South Anna,’ a butternut that grows better than any other available in the Southeast. “We crossed ‘Waltham’ butternut and ‘Seminole’ pumpkin, a cultivar native to Florida,” he explains. “I’ve selected ‘South Anna’ for flavor and productivity as well as for pest and downy mildew resistance.”
Frost focuses on maintaining genetic diversity, and thus adaptability, in his cultivars. His seeds thrive all over the South, from home gardens to large-scale production to university trials.
Nature and Nurture Seeds: Ann Arbor, Michigan
“Here in the Heartland, summers are hot, humid, and short, while winters are long and cold,” says Erica Kempter, co-founder of Nature and Nurture Seeds. “Rooted in southeast Michigan’s rich prairie soils, we passionately preserve Midwest heirloom seeds, cultivate community, and create new regionally adapted varieties.”
‘Grand Rapids’ lettuce is a perfect example. It has masses of frilly, sweet, neon-green leaves, and it’s an heirloom cultivar that was adapted to Grand Rapids, Michigan, over a century ago.
“‘Grand Rapids’ lettuce celebrates the Midwest’s past with exciting promises for the future,” Kempter explains. In 1900, this cultivar was introduced in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to grow in the extreme cold of unheated greenhouses, supplying millions of pounds of winter lettuce to the region. “We continue to adapt it,” says Kempter, “by growing it in unheated hoop houses through even the harshest polar vortex winters (sometimes minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit), and then saving seeds from surviving plants.” Nature and Nurture Seeds has also crossed ‘Grand Rapids’ lettuce with a red lettuce, creating a rainbow of cold-hardy, regionally adapted lettuces.
Snake River Seed Cooperative: Boise, Idaho
“Our mission is to grow a robust regional seedshed for the Intermountain West,” proclaims Casey O’Leary, the contagiously vivacious founder of Snake River Seed Cooperative. “For us, this means building a network of farmers, gardeners, breeders, and eaters who value locally produced seeds and the resilience, abundance, and independence they bring to our region.”
O’Leary has an impressive collection of seed adapted for her region, including an extensive selection of wildflowers native to the Intermountain West, perfect for feeding native pollinator species. She is particularly passionate about ‘Payette,’ a delicious, stocky, early maturing slicing tomato with resistance to curly top virus. “‘Payette’ was bred by the University of Idaho in the 1960s, and it’s one of our favorite Idaho-bred varieties.”
‘Advent Gulch Blue’ corn also represents and celebrates the Intermountain West. Mike O’Brien developed this cultivar over the course of 40 years, selecting for exceptional cold-soil germination and emergence, as well as early maturing cobs. Mike has deliberately kept flour, flint, and dent corn genes in the cultivar. “‘Advent Gulch Blue’ corn makes a delicious cornbread and has performed well in our tortilla trials, too,” says O’Leary, with a broad smile.
Sow What You Love, Love What You Sow
Seeds are gifts containing the creative genius and legacy of plant and human ancestors alike. It’s our responsibility to care for them, sharing their cultural and agricultural abundance, for generations to come. May the seeds you sow this season transform and amplify the immense adaptation and abundance possible on our planet.
Regionally Adapted … Peanuts?
In 1912, there were nearly 100 seed companies in the Finger Lakes region of western New York, where I grew up. By 2012, when I founded Fruition Seeds, there were only three, and mine was the only one growing its own seed.
Fruition Seeds shares hundreds of cultivars that thrive in the short seasons of the Northeast, plus the resources you need to surround yourself with abundance. All of the crops I remember maturing way too late in my father’s garden, I now grow with ease from our organic, regionally adapted seeds. We enjoy red peppers, dahlias, watermelons, eggplants, and countless ripe tomatoes each July instead of August, September, or never. We even grow peanuts—a crop my family grew once when I was a child and never again, after spending four months of gardening only to harvest a measly five peanuts.
In 2013 I received a gift of regionally adapted peanuts in the mail. I’m not proud to admit it, but I scoffed with skepticism. Nonetheless, we sowed the seeds, which a man had painstakingly selected in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for more than 30 years. 2013 was the coldest season on record in our county, and we harvested an average of 21 peanuts per plant. In 2016, the warmest on record, we harvested an average of 41. Yes, even peanuts can become regionally adapted, with enough time, human imagination, and genetic diversity.
Petra Page-Mann is the co-owner of Fruition Seeds, a New-York-based seed company that offers regionally adapted vegetable, herb, and flower seeds, more than half of which are produced onsite. You can follow her on Instagram @Fruition_Seeds.