Most of the seed sold in Australia is imported, harvested from plants farmed overseas. This kind of seed can respond differently when grown in different parts of the country. For example, if a seed crop of, say, pumpkin, has been acclimatised to one specific climate zone, such as cool temperate Europe, and a packet is sown in tropical Darwin, dry temperate Perth and subtropical Brisbane, gardeners might get variable results. This is exactly what has just happened to my heritage Italian pumpkin ‘Tonda Padana‘. It’s brilliant in a temperate climate but it cannot cope with a subtropical summer. After a bright start, it’s rotting outside in my Brisbane garden.
Australia has a reasonable range of independant seed retailers, despite undercutting by multinationals which drown the market with cheap seed produced abroad, and there’s a increasing range of local Seed Saver groups, called Local Seed Networks (LSN’s). There’s now one hundred LSNs Australia-wide. Unlike seed retailers, community-based LSN’s offer seed of crops that are being ‘localised’ – they are being adapted to suit local soils and conditions.
LSNs share their seed stock free amongst members. Generally, the diversity of seed suppliers, and the range of plants they sell as seed, is declining as multinational companies acquire and combine smaller seed and fertiliser companies. The Seed Savers’ Network developed in response to this declining diversity, especially for traditional crops.
Business regards gardeners as consumers, and they treat customers as either ‘hunters’ or ‘gatherers’. ‘Hunters’ know what they want and dislike distractions when buying, while ‘gatherers’ regard shopping as recreational. Hunters bring a shopping list and stick to it. Gatherers enjoy browsing. Our buying habits are further mapped out in retail stores. Racks of packaged seed displays are positioned to please both hunter and gatherer.
Obvious, well signed displays of common cultivars, from alyssum to zucchini, are strategically placed next to the seed trays, propagating mixes and fertilisers for the hunters. Smaller displays of popular seeds and novelty mixes jostle with the greetings cards and magazines by the till – special deals to tempt the gatherer before they leave. I used to arrange a garden centre in London like this, because this setup is perfect for the novice and it increases sales.
Buying seed is a simple over the counter transaction. Stock is fresh, often securely sealed in air- and water-tight packaging, with clearly displayed growing instructions and a ‘use by date’. In these circumstances, buying old, dead, or mouldy seed is unlikely.
Check the use by date. Grass seed, whether of species or mixes for lawns, should be sown before expiry because seed of this plant family is vulnerable, not durable. I used to get quite a few returns of semi-dead lawn seed because when it’s packed loose inside cardboard and stored for a long time in different spaces, fluctuations between summer air conditioning and winter heating stresses stored live seed.
Use by dates are as important for plants with tiny seed, like lobelia, shiso and poppy. Tiny seed has minuscule energy reserves, and storing them at room temperature can literally wear them out faster than large seed, such as pea or bean seed.
Look out for speciality fruit and vegetable shops. Oriental food stores in particular, can be sources of unusual and interesting plants. African food stores in Brisbane are where I buy raw peanuts in the shells – viable, economical seed. Health food stores are economical sources of bulk seed for green manures and vegetables, like sunflower, peanut, various peas and grains.
If you’re growing seed to produce sprouts, only use certified organic seed because it is chemical-free. Health food stores are the most thrifty source of organic seed for sprouting or mass sowing. These stores are also where I buy the pods of true cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum). This is often the only way you can grow the genuine species because so many nurseries sell misidentified, mislabelled false cardamom (Alpinia nutans), claiming it is the real thing.
Mail order seed catalogues greatly expand choice, and some provide useful growing tips. Gatherers can compare prices and quantities offered. Over time you’ll discover who’s seed produces the best quality plants and who’s seed is less likely to germinate well.
Discovering what’s new in each successive catalogue is great fun in itself. There’s a popular belief that seed is a safe way of moving plants between countries, because there’s a lower risk of seed carrying pests and diseases. This belief is misplaced. It only applies where seed is ‘clean’, and that requires professional handling, cleaning and sorting. Amateurs tempted to bring plant souvenirs back from overseas holidays risk the health of entire industries, as well as stiff fines and possible imprisonment.
Internet shopping tempts inadvertent, illegal seed importation. Reputable companies will not supply to Australia – they know of our strict quarantine laws. Australia also has interstate quarantine, designed to limit the spread of pests, diseases and potential weeds. The best suppliers indicate which plants cannot be sold to WA or Tasmanian gardeners.
Expect to pay a premium for ‘new release’ cultivars – you’re covering the cost of promotional advertising and plant breeder rights. Expect premium prices for unusual or rare plants too. You’ll probably also get fewer seeds than usual. There’s also a possibility that, because of limited demand, rare plant seed may have been stored for lengthy periods and their viability reduced.
Hybrid seed is costly because of the production involved. An ‘F1 hybrid’ is seed produced by the first, controlled cross pollination of two parent varieties, so their hybrid offspring combines the best qualities of both parents. ‘F2 hybrid’ seed is a result of saving seed produced by the F1 generation. Bedding geranium seed (Pelargonium x hortorum) is one example where F1 and F2 hybrid seed is sold, but many hybrids, like F1 sweetcorn, don’t produce seed worth saving or selling.
There are several small, keen seed subcultures on the rise. More Australian plants than ever before are available as seed, often in bulk for mass plantings. The variety of paper daisies available is one example of how the native seed industry has expanded its range. Legal harvesting of wild Australian plant seed supports revegetation networks who are combatting dryland salinity, soil erosion and restoring wild communities to health.
Heritage plants support a growing subculture. Some gardeners are abandoning hybrids for ‘old-fashioned’, ‘traditional’, ‘heritage’ or ‘open pollinated’ plants. These are generally easier to grow, their seed is easy to save at home, and saving seed connects the gardener to annual growing cycles.
Lacking the uniformity of hybrids, and generally no less productive, open pollinated plants tend to be more robust and need less food and pesticides to produce something worthwhile. Fertiliser and pesticides are a hidden cost, and a common consequence of growing modern hybrids for farmers.
Membership-based ‘Seed Saver’ networks make additional efforts far beyond offering unusual seed: they offer education, planning, advice and events, as well as free seed to Local Seed Network members.
Seed Savers deliberately adapt their cultivars to suit local conditions and soils. With our enormously varied climates and soils, locally adapted Australian-grown seed can offer practical advantages over foreign seed grown in just the one climate.
Most important of all, as our climate changes, gardeners and farmers who practice seed saving techniques are able to improve their crops. Seed Saving supports local food security in a warming world.
Seed Sources (please note web-based contact details are subject to change)
1 Native Seed: The Australian Native Plant Society maintains a seed supplier list. Eyre Native Seeds, PO Box 1334, Port Lincoln, SA 5606. Ph: 08 8682 6233; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Goozeff Seeds, PO Box 3022, North Nowra, NSW 2541. Ph: 02 4421 0731; Email: email@example.com Nindethana Seed Service, P/L, PO Box 2121, Albany, WA 6331. Ph: 08 9844 3533; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 Vegetables, herbs, fruit and spices: Arthur Yates & Co Ltd, PO Box 6672, Silverwater BC, NSW 1811. Ph: 02 9763 9200; Eden Seeds, M.S. 905, Lower Beechmont, Qld 4211. Ph: (07) 5533 1107; Green Harvest, PO Box 92, Maleny, QLD 4552; http://www.greenharvest.com.au. Free call 1800 681014 (orders only) Greenpatch Organic Seeds, 109 Old Bar Road, Glenthorne, NSW. Ph/Fax: 02 6551 4240; Email: email@example.com New Gippsland Seeds, PO Box 1, Silvan, VIC 3795. Ph: 03 9737 9560; Royston Petrie Seeds, P/L, PO Box 1152, Mudgee, NSW 2850. Ph: 02 6372 7800; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Seed Savers’ Network, PO Box 975, Byron Bay, NSW 2481. Ph: 02 6685 7560; Email: email@example.com
The only source of Mouse Melon seed (Melotheria scabra) that I know of is from Shaman Australis. Ask Mr Weidermann nicely!
Fancy growing the biggest mangelwurzel in the southern hemisphere? Or possibly nettles? Contact Michael Self at Phoenix Seeds, Tasmania.
I always grow decorative, edible Amaranthus, aka amaranth, including Joseph’s Coat (Amaranthus tricolor) and other traditional edibles like A. cruentus, A. gangeticus and Love-lies-bleeding, (A. caudatus which comes in red-flowered and green-flowered cultivars). Seed is available from Royston Petrie, Green Harvest and Eden Seeds, and also from Australian sellers on Ebay.
If you’re after Cocoyams (Xanthosoma saggitifolia), or Aerial Potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) or Winged Yam (D. alata) I share my surplus at my Open Days. They are a visitor perk. Cocoyams are sometimes sold in far north Queensland fruit shops in autumn, and may be labelled ‘White taro’, a redundant common name. While I have been told there is one commercial grower left in Australia – somewhere around Innisfail/ Tully – I do not have their contact details.
Happy hunting and gathering!
1st March 2013