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California Seed Companies to Get Your Garden Started

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Photo: Linda Ly
Photo: Linda Ly

Would you believe there are over 7,500 varieties of tomatoes that you can plant? Or 1,200 varieties of watermelons? Looking at the seed selection from your local big box store, you'd never know it. But they're out there -- and that means you could have Japanese Black Trifele tomatoes from Russia (go figure) growing right in your own backyard this summer, all without having to actually go to Russia for those rare seeds.

Seed catalogs and seed banks are treasure troves of exotic fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, most of which you've never heard of. Think yellow cucumbers (like this Lemon Cucumber variety) or green eggplants (like the Cambodian Green Giant) -- these breeds are not only beautiful (and a hit with kids and adults alike), but also a fascinating look into our gardening heritage (long before hybridized seeds became the standard). Instead of planting the reliable old standbys found at the local Home Depot, why not try something a little more out of the (big) box?

Sustainable Seed Company If you want local, you can't get much closer to home than Sustainable Seed Company. This Northern California-based supplier specializes in certified organic heirloom vegetable seeds (over 1,500 varieties and counting!). An impressive 75% of their seed stock is grown on organic farms in California, and 40% of their seed stock is grown right in Mendocino County, which is completely GMO-free. So, you can rest assured that your seeds aren't sourced from biochemical giant Monsanto and your purchases are actually benefiting the local California economy. Besides vegetables, Sustainable Seed Company also carries a wide selection of organic grain, herb, flower, and tobacco seeds.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Originally based in the Midwest, the family-owned Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds opened their West Coast headquarters in Petaluma at the former Sonoma County Bank building. Operating as a standalone store, the aptly named Petaluma Seed Bank houses thousands of pure, open-pollinated heirloom seeds as well as hundreds of locally crafted gift and food items. Owner Jere Gettle travels the world to bring back exotic and new (to us) seeds, then grows them on his own farm to ensure only quality varieties are introduced to his customers. Currently, the company carries over 1,450 heirloom varieties from over 70 countries, all sourced from small farmers and all of them adhering to Baker Creek's mission of non-hybrid, non-GMO, non-treated and non-patented seeds.

Renee's Garden For over 15 years, Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden has been sourcing and selling both conventional and organic seeds to gardeners all over. Based in the Santa Cruz County town of Felton, Renee's Garden is committed to the Safe Seed Pledge developed by The Council for Responsible Genetics and guarantees that none of their seeds are chemically treated or genetically engineered. Besides an assortment of vegetable, flower, and herb seeds, the company also carries easy-to-grow seed collections for novice gardeners, such as the "Container Kitchen Vegetable Garden" for small spaces. Every seed packet is beautifully illustrated and comes with detailed information on planting, growing, and harvesting, as well as cooking ideas!

TomatoFest Heirloom Tomato Seeds If you know what you like and you only like tomatoes (after all, they're the superstars of summer), then you'll love the seed selection at TomatoFest. The company originally started in 1991 as the renowned Carmel TomatoFest event, which celebrated food and wine and offered tasting displays of over 300 heirloom tomato varieties from around the world. After 20 years of running the event and supplying restaurants and markets with heirloom tomatoes, founders Gary Ibsen and Dagma Lacey decided to focus on their organic seed business. Rebranded as TomatoFest Heirloom Tomato Seeds, the company now carries 600 varieties of non-hybrid, non-GMO seeds for tomatoes in every color of the rainbow.

Kitazawa Seed Company If you're looking for seeds that you can't find anywhere else, enter Kitazawa Seed Company. Founded in 1917 by Japanese immigrant and one-time seed company apprentice Gijiu Kitazawa, the Oakland-based supplier specializes in over 250 varieties of Asian seeds. The website reads like a page from my childhood, from fiery red chili peppers to fragrant chrysanthemum greens. Kitazawa Seed Company carries a distinctive selection of fruits and vegetables (and even rice and sesame!) sourced all across Asia, including Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and China.

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