in sunday's ny times: my seed 'ethics'

Screen Shot 2013-03-02 at 8.32.33 PMI WROTE AN OPINION PIECE for Sunday’s “New York Times,” about how my ethical questions in garden-seed shopping aren’t about Monsanto, or about hybrids-versus-heirlooms–the stuff I read about elsewhere–but about how and where the seed I buy was raised.

By choosing seed farmed in conditions like my own–without chemicals, and if possible, in a geographically similar environment–I can contribute less to the pollution caused by conventional seed growing, and also make a happy “match” between the seeds and my garden. Read the “New York Times” story, and if you feel inclined, share it. My latest public-radio show, produced with Robin Hood Radio, digs into the subject, too.Margaret Roach in New York Times on seeds

  1. Aubyn says:

    Thanks Margaret, for adding even more knowledge to my ever-growing, bountiful stash of Margaret gardening know-how. It’s an enlightening article, but the digging required for ethical seed shopping can be a bit daunting, Fortunately I’ve also discovered your seed orders on awaytogarden. Spared the intimidating research, I’ve ordered my seeds this year from your suggested suppliers, which allowed for guilt-free seed shopping, and hopefully more successful growing in my own little organic veggie patch.

  2. ann says:

    Well, in my little corner of the world, far from NYC and TIMES, although I read it,
    just buy seed that is familiar, convenient, and within my budget. Also reading the BEAK OF THE FINCH and planning an expedition to galapagos to learn about origin.

  3. Wendy Gloffke says:

    Thank you for this! “I’m not even speaking of what I perceive as a false construct over hybrid-or-heirloom, as if it were an either-or debate and one could not ethically elect to grow both (as I do). Gregor Mendel made hybrids; nature has done it herself, though neither spliced anything in the process.”

    I’ve been engaged in many gentle (and some not-so-gentle ;->) discussions about this very point.

    1. margaret says:

      Very funny, Wendy. I get un-gentle from time to time myself. :)
      Thank you, Mary Jo, for bringing up bees — protecting insects and other invertebrates is another reason to say NO to chemicals.
      Nice to hear from you, Richard. Keep up the good (hard) work!
      As for your pumpkins, Carol — at the moment I do not know of genetically engineered pumpkins (meaning I don’t think there are any under patent, therefore). Corn, soy, cotton, sugar beets and some other ag crops so far.

  4. Local Regional sourcing all is good- ID plants that need a corral!! Organic great -especially if you eat it! My concern at this time bees. European Study w commercial corn growers(and other ag crops) purchasing huge amounts of seed treated w/ neoniconides w/ link to bee collapse.Much bigger impact than the home grower Sowing poppies today in newspaper pots! Philly Flo Show tommorow !!MJO

  5. Richard Moyer says:

    Thanks for supporting organic seed farmers. A major part of our farm income is growing and selling organic seed. Compared to how much food a packet of seed can produce, the seed cost is minimal, even when paying more for organic seed. And when buying from many of the seed companies you recommend, more of your seed dollars go directly to supporting the farms that grow them.

  6. Matt Mattus says:

    Finally, a sensible discussion about seeds, how to approach solutions if one has concerns about their safety and health, and some good logic applied to a subject which has grown completely out of scale with many other bloggers. Go Margaret!

  7. Carol Southern says:

    Planting seeds is not so simple any more! I recently read about Hugh Bowman vs Monsanto. I was wondering if I buy a pumpkin at the grocery store, save the seeds & plant them–am I now breaking the law?>

  8. Steven says:

    Enjoyed the podcast. Thank you. An FYI if I may per the availability of Mosanto seeds for the home gardener. De Ruiter is a Dutch company heavily invested in developing seeds for greenhouse production. They also produce rootstock for tomato and aubergine varieties. The rootstock Beaufort and Maxifort developed for greenhouse production are grown by De Ruiter, which is owned by Monsanto. Johnny’s use to offer a rootstock, Emperador, for gardeners that wished for an alternative to Monsanto. D.Palmer Seed offers a rootstock that was developed for garden growing. In addition to other diseases it offers high resistance to bacterial wilt which Beaufort and Maxifort do not.
    Keep well.

  9. Patsy Mesthos says:

    I read the article first thing this morning, and I can’t believe I never found this site before! After reading the article, I was worried because I had just received an order from my favorite seed company, Renee’s. I was so relieved when I found her on your list, and even more relieved when I read what she wrote about her onion and potato growers. What a thrill it was when I clicked on Michael Pollan and found that he had produced a book with Maira Kalman. I’ll put it on my shelf next to her Elements of Style.

  10. Donna says:

    Great article in the NYT! I certainly respect all the research you’ve done. Where do you recommend purchasing seeds? I am new to gardening and would like to grow my own greens, such as kale, collards, chard. Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tim. Yes, the Times linked the word “author” in my bio on the piece to my website. They do not allow you to name your site in the text. Ethical guidelines.

  11. narf7 says:

    This winter (just about here) I will be sitting down with my research glasses on hunting for seed that will grow well here on Serendipity Farm. No more hit and miss or coaxing and molly coddling plants and seed that simply won’t do well and I will be attempting to source seeds with provenance for our local area. People don’t realise that seed sourced from local plants is usually going to be the best option for your own garden. Friends and neighbours in your area with spare seed are gold mines because this seed is already acclimatised to your local conditions and primed to grow well when exposed to them. I have been hunting for seed in our local area over the summer and have quite a stash now, especially of things growing on wasteland that didn’t recieve additional water. Those seeds are tough! We need to be as adaptable as our seeds are if we are going to garden in our increasingly tougher conditions. There are a bewildering aray of plants that will grow in your area and if you can find seed locally, you are definately ahead. Cheers for this wonderful article and for spreading the word so that we gardeners can adapt our gardens to future conditions :)

  12. Frank Knarf says:

    Margaret or anyone else, can you cite scientific studies that support your assertion that seeds grown in low input systems will be better adapted to organic or low input gardening? I am certainly on-board with supporting local producers and with doing what I can to limit upstream herbicide and pesticide use. But the claim about seed performance needs references other than an opinion. My garden is organic, btw.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Frank. In 825 words, which was what the Times piece was, I could not, no. I suggest starting with the quoted Organic Seed Alliance geneticist’s paper that’s posted on the national Cooperative Extension System website, in its Organic Seed Resource Guide at this link. I had hoped The Times might link to it, but they didn’t. There are more papers cited in the footnotes there, and so on.

      Thanks, Susan, for sharing your experience with us; it sounds as if it has been quite inspiring.

      Thanks for the tipoff about your organization’s seed library Samuel. There is one not far from me that I am very excited about, too.

      Patsy, I am glad to meet you, and very glad you found some of the resources here helpful.

      Thanks for calling out the DeRuiter connection, Steven — helpful for those wishing to graft tomatoes or grow in greenhouses/poly tunnels.

      Donna: It’s the $64,000 question. I have tried to make my Resources page as carefully as possible. However: It’s not comprehensive, so there are many more possibilities out there with whom I have no personal experience — and there are a couple in there that have international items nobody else does (Asian, Italian…), which is why they are listed, though I don’t know their sourcing as well as domestic ones. Best idea: ask anyone you want to buy from the where/how questions! If you tell me where you are located roughly, I might know some interesting places near you.

  13. Susan says:

    Hello Margaret, I live in Southern Ontario and do my best to combat the Big Guys by supporting a local organic seed farm called http://www.hawthornfarm.ca. I never knew how much work growing seed was until I volunteered to pack for online shipments! By virtue of packing seek once a week in “the barn”, I’ve sponged up knowledge about the how to’s of growing stronger plants that I can hardly wait to dig again in my own garden.

  14. Samuel Rose says:

    Community seed libraries are one of the key alternatives to this issue. If local gardeners and growers can facilitate the exchange of local seed stock, then we will have more adapted varieties on a micro-regional level that require less inputs.

    We run a seed library at our community garden out of necessity because in our region of the world it is difficult to get a hold of heirloom seed. What little we have must be reproduced and exchanged to be sure that we’ll have more for future seasons.

  15. Diana Pappas says:

    A very helpful addition to the good/bad debate regarding seeds and it’s great to see you in the NY Times! I’ve been fortunate to have visited Hudson Valley Seed Library a few years ago and tour the “seed farm” and I couldn’t be more confident in the seeds that I get from there. That experience of seeing the operation there also inspired me to save my own seeds, even from biennial crops. I now no longer have to buy kale, butternut squash, dill, calendula, peas, garlic, leeks, garlic chives etc., and year after year the seeds get more adapted to our hot, often under-watered, “low input” New Jersey garden.

  16. Cathy says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article. I’ve been learning about and teaching gardening techniques for many years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a concise and authoritative article on the value of using locally-sourced seed. Great job!

  17. Wendy Gloffke says:

    Dr. Stephen Jones at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington did some research relating to breeding plants for low-input and organic systems. His group might have published papers that support the assertion that seeds grown in low input systems will be better adapted to organic or low input gardening.

  18. Louise says:

    Great article. I have gardened and loved learning from you. I have learned to treasure the bees. They love my yard with more native plants each year. I love it, too.


  19. Brandis says:

    Great article, and an important topic. People often complain to me that organic seed is too expensive- but when you price out the result, even the most expensive packet of seeds is a steal. The point that garden seed is NOT GMO can not be made enough- I’m very anti-GMO, but I’m also anti bad information. And I also agree with you re: the hybrid vs. heirloom argument. It’s one I’ve never gotten personally, and there are certain vegetables that I just plain can’t grow unless I grow the F1 hybrid. However, I do still think that avoiding Monsanto sourced seeds is an important step we all need to consider that has nothing to do with the result in our gardens or even the environmental ramifications of seed harvesting. While those are both important, I consider every dollar I spend to be a vote for the business and ethical practices of the company I am buying from. If I support companies like Monsanto, I am essentially saying “yes, I’m okay with GMO corn/soy/etc.” Which I am not. HOWEVER, since by seeking out companies that raise seed organically and geographically similar, you’re more than likely going to be avoiding Monsanto seeds anyway. As it stands, almost all of the companies I ordered seeds from this year are on your sources list, including my FAVORITE, Renee’s Gardens (which are awesomely sold at my local hardware store, so I can impulse shop!). One missing was Restoration seeds, who I ordered a lot of perennial vegetable seeds from (and who don’t seem to be on anyone’s list, so I’m going to give them a shout out!).

  20. Mike says:


    Just wanted to let you know that I saw your new book front and center as I walked in the door of the local Chapters here in Ottawa. Great book by the way. Have been promoting it to all my gardening friends.

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