Clean Start

Organic gardening begins with organic seeds.

By Marty Ross

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Gardeners who support organic farmers and ecologically responsible agricultural practices have created a growing market for organic vegetable and flower seeds. Certified-organic seeds can now be bought from nearly every direct-marketing seed supplier and from racks in garden shops and big-box stores.

The supply of organic seeds for home gardeners is good, seed-sellers say, but there is plenty of room for more variety. In agriculture, "the lack of organically bred and produced seed is a barrier to the growth and ongoing success of organic farming," according to the Organic Seed Alliance's latest State of Organic Seeds project. The OSA is trying to change that. Backyard gardeners will benefit, too.

"Our main goal is to advocate for organic seeds," says John Navazio, OSA senior scientist. The organization defines organic seed as any seed that is grown in certified-organic soil using organic practices, fertilizers, and pest controls. Once collected, the seeds cannot be treated with nonorganic fungicides.

"Organic is great," Navazio says. "It's less chemicals, less groundwater pollution, less pesticide residue, less air pollution."

However, organic seeds are not essential for an organic garden: It is how you treat the plants (and the soil) after the seeds have germinated that counts. "You're not getting appreciable amounts" of pesticide, for example, in beet seeds grown in fields where chemical pesticides were used on the plants, Navazio says.

Gardeners who buy organic seed pay a little more, and they do it from "a sense of righteousness," not because the seed is scientifically better, says George Ball, CEO and chairman of Burpee. "People want to feel like they are in tune, in harmony." Burpee has added dozens of certified-organic varieties to its list this year.

Seed-sellers' careful choices of varieties are slowly boosting sales, says Rose Marie Nichols McGee of Nichols Garden Nursery. "We try to offer at least one organic choice in each category of vegetables," she says. The market is not large, but, she says, "It is our small way of supporting organic seed growers," and of taking care of gardeners who want to do the same thing.

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