Patrick Whitefield's Guide to Choosing Vegetable Seeds

Patrick Whitefield
Thursday, 23rd January 2014

It's time to order your seeds and get ready for the spring! But should you choose heritage seeds or F1 hybrids? Experienced gardener, Patrick Whitefield, offers a useful guide.

The wind may be howling, the rain may be sheeting down and the garden may look bare and bedraggled, but now is the time to think about buying seeds, before the rush starts.

The first step is to decide what you want to grow next year and see what seeds you have in stock. You may find that you don’t have to buy very much. There’s usually more than you need for one year’s sowing in the average seed packet and if you’ve kept last year’s surplus in a cool, dry place, out of direct light, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use it this year. But do look at the best before date and take it seriously.

I’m ruthless about chucking out doubtful seed. There are many things which can go wrong after you sow seeds, so it’s good if you can rest assured that at least the seed was OK. Otherwise, if the plants are late to emerge, it just adds to your doubts about whether you should re-sow. 

For the same reason I’m a bit cautious about seeds swaps. They’re lovely social occasions and I’m happy to take some of my home-saved seed and pick up some from other gardeners. But I have the same reluctance to sow other people’s aged packets from the year before last or older as I have about my own, especially as I don’t know how carefully they stored them.

Good seeds mean well grown seedlings

What to Buy

The first question here is do you want to grow heritage varieties or modern ones? There are good reasons for both choices:

  • heritage varieties usually taste better

  • they’re often more suitable for the home gardener than the commercial grower, e.g. peas which ripen little by little throughout the season rather than all at once for one big harvest

  • you may find something unusual, e.g. there are hundreds of varieties of tomato and lettuce that never make it to the mainstream catalogues

  • the people who grow and sell them are often the kind of small, ethical businesses that many of us want to support

  • growing them helps keep genetic diversity where it belongs, in the fields and gardens rather than frozen in a gene bank 

On the other hand:

  • modern varieties usually have a higher yield

  • they may have been bred for resistance to specific diseases

  • you’ll probably be more familiar with them and know exactly what you’re going to get, which is an advantage if reliable crops are more important to you than experiment

Should you use hybrids? Some people think that ‘hybrid’ means ‘genetically modified’. It doesn’t. It simply means that two strains of the same vegetable have been grown by inbreeding and then crossbred with each other to give the F1 generation, which is the seed you sow in your garden. The advantages of hybrids are that they often have qualities which other varieties lack and that final crossbreeding gives them extra vigour. The disadvantage is that you can’t save your own seed from them, because it doesn’t come true in the next generation.  The choice is yours.

Where to Buy Them

The Organic Gardening Catalogue has a comprehensive range of mainstream seeds and other gardening requisites. They’re connected to the charity Garden Organic and buying from them helps to support its valuable work.

The Real Seed Company is run by a couple of gardeners who grow and eat the vegetables whose seed they sell, all heritage, non-hybrid varieties. They must be the only seed company that encourages their customers to save their own seed, with instructions on the packet. They also campaign against new laws that aim to resrict genetic diversity

Potatoes are a special case. Blight disease makes it very difficult to grow them successfully without spraying. Even certified organic potatoes are sprayed. But new blight-resistant varieties have been bred by the Sarvari Trust and are available from Thompson and Morgan under the name Sarpo.

These are only UK suggestions and there are other suppliers of organic seeds who do a good job. Please share your favourite seeds suppliers in the comments!

Patrick Whitefield is a permaculture gardener, teacher for over 20 years and author of some of our bestselling titles including Permaculture in a Nutshell, How To Make a Forest Garden and the classic text, The Earth Care Manual. For details of all of his highly respected books and eBooks HERE.

Further Resources

Video: Patrick Whitefield's Tips for Seed Saving & Making Compost

Video: Patrick on the Art of Watering Seedlings & Slug Prevention

His latest book How to Read the Landscape is now available through our Green Shopping site for a special price of £12.71

Or read an extract in the latest issue of Permaculture magazine (PM83) OUT NOW as a pdf download, in print or as part of a:



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